The present work is concerned with an application of the theory of characteristics to conservation laws with source terms in one space dimension, such as the Euler equations for reacting flows. Space-time paths are introduced on which the flow/chemistry equations decouple to a characteristic set of O.D.E's for the corresponding homogeneous laws, thus allowing the introduction of functions analogous to the Riemann Invariants in the classical theory. The geometry of these paths depends on the spatial gradients of the solution. This particular decomposition can be used in the design of efficient unsplit algorithms for the numerical integration of the equations. As a first step, these ideas are implemented for the case of a scalar conservation law with a nonlinear source term. The resulting algorithm belongs to the class of MUSCL-type, shock-capturing schemes. Its accuracy and robustness are checked through a series of tests. The stiffness of the source term is also studied. Then, the algorithm is generalized for a system of hyperbolic equations, namely the Euler equations for reacting flows. A numerical study of unstable detonations is performed.