Chimney Fires

By: Danielle
By: Danielle

Aaron Norford was watching TV when he heard a low roar. He says, "I thought it was something outside. It sounded like a train or a jet passing by." It was actually a fire that started in the chimney. Luckily, neighborhood firefighter, David Gayheart, was nearby. Norford says, "He had been passing by the window of his place and had seen eight to ten foot flames coming out of the chimney."

Fire crews put the blaze out quickly. There was very little damage to the house. Norford continues, "It's amazing how quick the firefighters got here. It's amazing how many of them were at the disposal of the community."

The Norford chimney was two years overdue for a cleaning. An easy thing to put off until a chimney fire happens. Jim Meehan works for Sootbusters, Inc. He's been cleaning chimneys for two years. He says, "You wanna get your chimney cleaned every year because you wanna remove the creosote that builds up inside your chimney."

Creosote is deposits of unburned, flammable, tar vapors from wood smoke. Meehan says even if you don't have it cleaned every year, you should have it inspected. He continues, "It takes a little extra heat to catch something on fire and boom there you go."

The Norfords plan on using the fireplace once it passes inspection. But for now, they are simply thankful. Aaron Norford says, "We feel really fortunate that it was only going for a couple of minutes and it was spotted so quick. It's was like somebody was watching over us." Extended Web Coverage

Chimney Facts

  • The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, reports that some 23,600 residential fires in the 50 states were related to solid fuel appliances and equipment in 1996.

  • An additional 5,500 fires were attributed to chimneys and chimney connectors serving heating systems burning liquid and other fuels.

  • As a result of these fires, 130 people died, 230 people were injured, and total property losses were set at more than $184.4 million.

  • In addition there were a minimum of 119 deaths from carbon monoxide and at least 4,700 "injuries" reported for the same time frame, though most estimates range much higher.

  • The root cause of most of these losses is that most U.S. homeowners are unaware that chimneys are an integral part of a home heating system and that they require regular evaluation and maintenance.

  • The primary job of a chimney service professional is to aid in the prevention of fires related to fireplaces, woodstoves, gas, oil and coal heating systems and the chimneys that serve them. Wood burning heating systems, in particular, require careful monitoring and skillful operation.

  • Chimney sweeps install, clean and maintain these systems, evaluate their performance, prescribe changes to improve their performance, and educate the consumer about their safe and efficient operation.

  • The basic task of a chimney sweep is to clean chimneys. Cleaning means removing the hazard of accumulated and highly combustible creosote produced by burning wood and wood products.

  • It means eliminating the build-up of soot in coal- and oil-fired systems, it means getting rid of bird and animal nests, leaves and other debris that may create a hazard by blocking the flow of emissions from a home heating appliance. In doing their primary job, sweeps also function as on-the-job fire prevention specialists.

  • They are constantly on the lookout for unsafe conditions that can cause home fires or threaten residents with dangerous or unhealthy indoor air quality.

Chimney Q and A

Q: How should I have my chimney cleaned?
A: The National Fire Protection Association standard 211 says, "Chimneys, fireplaces, and vents shall be inspected at least once a year for soundness, freedom from deposits, and correct clearances. Cleaning, maintenance, and repairs shall be done if necessary." This is the national safety standard and is the correct way to approach the problem. It takes into account the fact that even if you don't use your chimney much, animals may build nests in the flue or there may be other types of deterioration that could make the chimney unsafe to use.

The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends that open masonry fireplaces should be cleaned at 1/4" of sooty buildup, and sooner if there is any glaze present in the system. Factory-built fireplaces should be cleaned when any appreciable buildup occurs. This is considered to be enough fuel buildup to cause a chimney fire capable of damaging the chimney or spreading to the home.

Q: My fireplace stinks, especially in the summer. What can I do?
A: The smell is due to creosote deposits in the chimney, a natural byproduct of wood burning. The odor is usually worse in the summer when the humidity is high and the air conditioner is turned on. A good cleaning will help but usually won't solve the problem completely. There are commercial chimney deodorants that work pretty well, and many people have good results with baking soda or even kitty litter set in the fireplace. The real problem is the air being drawn down the chimney, a symptom of overall pressure problems in the house. Some make-up air should be introduced somewhere else in the house. A tight sealing, top mounted damper will also reduce this air flow coming down the chimney.

Q: When I build a fire in my upstairs fireplace, I get smoke from the basement fireplace.
A: This has become quite a common problem in modern air tight houses where weather proofing has sealed up the usual air infiltration routes. The fireplace in use exhausts household air until a negative pressure situation exists. If the house is fairly tight, the simplest route for makeup air to enter the structure is often the unused fireplace chimney. As air is drawn down this unused flue, it picks up smoke that is exiting nearby from the fireplace in use and delivers the smoke to the living area. The best solution is to provide makeup air to the house so the negative pressure problem no longer exists, thus eliminating not only the smoke problem, but also the potential for carbon monoxide to be drawn back down the furnace chimney. A secondary solution is to install a top mount damper on the fireplace that is used the least.

Q: I heat with gas. Should this chimney be checked too?
A: Without a doubt! Although gas is generally a clean burning fuel, the chimney can become non-functional from bird nests or other debris blocking the flue. Modern furnaces can also cause many problems with the average flues intended to vent the older generation of furnaces.

Source: (Chimney Safety Institute of America Web site) contributed to this report.

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