spontaneous combustion, phenomenon in which a substance unexpectedly bursts into flame without apparent cause. In ordinary combustion, a substance is deliberately heated to its ignition point to make it burn. Many substances undergo a slow oxidation that, like the rapid oxidation of burning, releases heat. If the heat so released cannot escape the substance, the temperature of the substance rises until ignition takes place. Spontaneous combustion often occurs in piles of oily rags, green hay, leaves, or coal; it can constitute a serious fire hazard.