What to Know
Some wildfire victims say their safes and contents were completely destroyed by heat and flames
UL and the American Society for Testing and Materials caution against safe manufacturers using the term "fireproof"
Even if your safe is marketed as "fireproof", it may not be able to withstand fire that burns for more than an hour
Despite what their labels say, some safes marketed as "fireproof" can melt.
It's a disappointing discovery made by several California wildfire victims while sifting through the debris of their homes after the flames were extinguished.
Among them is Mike Cobb. A year after the North Bay fires, Cobb is rebuilding his home.
"I was lucky to get out with our family, our dogs, and our cats, but none of our possessions," Cobb said.
He lost everything -- including two safes, which he figured were fireproof.
"Both of them just completely disintegrated," Cobb said. "You couldn't recognize it. It was basically just the bottom that I could tell was the safe. The top was just crumbly material."
Sam Brinkerhoff says she also lost her safe in the fires. She had believed it was fireproof.
"It was supposed to be," she said. "It melted."
Searching for safes online, NBC Bay Area found many are marketed as fireproof. Exactly what that term means is unclear.
The U.S. Fire Administration and National Institute of Standards do not define or regulate the term "fireproof." Seven U.S. safe distributors that advertise fireproof safes provided five different definitions of the term, including an Arizona company that follows a Swedish definition; a South Carolina distributor using Chinese criteria; and a Texas seller adhering to a Korean benchmark.
Some safe makers indicate their products meet a UL standard. That's Underwriters Laboratory, a Chicago firm whose engineers conduct safety tests on everything from microwave ovens to patio doors. UL pushes products to their limits, and that includes "fireproof" safes. UL demonstrates in a video (below) how it grades safes and vaults, using a massive furnace that heats up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit:
Safes that survive the process can earn a UL seal. But UL told NBC Bay Area such safes should be labeled "fire resistant," not "fireproof." It said most consumer-grade safes are only rated for between 30 and 60 minutes of fire resistance.
Exposure to fire for an hour or less is ample time for many house fires, when firefighters are able to respond quickly. But in wildfires, entire neighborhoods can ignite, overwhelming fire crews. Homes can burn much longer, like Cobb's and Brinkerhoff's likely did, melting their "fireproof" safes.
"Even though it says 'fireproof', it's fireproof for a kitchen fire or something," Brinkerhoff said. "Not for the fire that came through here."
Should you trust the word "fireproof?" The American Society for Testing and Materials says no. It sets standards for many products and calls "fireproof" an "inappropriate and misleading term."
"You want to do research," Cobb says.
When buying a safe, consumers may want to ask the manufacturer how long its models can withstand a fire. Then, check if their fire evacuation plan should include a few seconds, if it's safe, to take irreplaceable items out of their safe.
"I now realize how much I didn't know," Cobb said. "It was not fireproof ... it is, but only to a certain point."