Fires involving heating appliances and fireplaces are the second leading cause of fires in residential structures in the United States behind cooking fires. According to the US Fire Administration, there are an estimated 50,000 heating fires in the US annually, resulting in 150 deaths and over $326 million in property losses each year.
In Grand County, the story is no different. Many of our larger structure fires each year are related to heating appliances, causing millions in damages over the last few years.
The most common type of structure fire reported is chimney fire. Chimney fires occur when soot or creosote builds up on top of a fireplace or inside the chimney or stove pipe. When enough soot builds up and the temperature of the exhaust builds, the creosote can be ignited. The creosote burns very hot and very fast, often accompanied by the roar of moving air, similar to the sound of a jet engine.
Firefighters often hear from residents "My fireplace does that all the time." While these fires are often contained to the chimney and fireplace, the excessive heat eventually leads to failure of the clay chimney, grout, or stove pipe; breaching into the structure or attic of the building. Additionally, the hot slag that can spew from the top of the chimney often lands on the roof or nearby combustible material, increasing the chances of ignition of the structure.
Historically, solid fuel fires increase when there are downturns in the economy and petroleum and electric costs rise. Many people burn more in their existing fireplaces, and many install inexpensive, used wood burner in their home and don't give much thought to the pipe they are using, or to the manufacturer's original recommendations or clearances.
Solid fuel appliance fires cost homeowners millions each year, but most can easily be prevented with regular maintenance and a little common sense. Here are some tips to keep your home safe from fireplace and chimney fires:
ο Have your chimney or wood stove inspected and cleaned annually by a chimney specialist (twice a year if burning softwoods).
ο Clear the area around the hearth of debris, decorations and flammable materials.
ο Leave glass doors open while burning a fire. Leaving the doors open ensures that the fire receives enough air to complete combustion and keeps creosote from building up in the chimney.
ο Use fire-resistant materials on walls around wood stoves
ο Cover the chimney cap with a mesh screen spark arrester.
ο Never use flammable liquids to start a fire.
ο Remove branches hanging above the chimney, flues or vents.
ο Use only seasoned wood. Soft, moist wood accelerates creosote buildup. In pellet stoves, burn only dry, seasoned wood pellets.
ο Never burn cardboard boxes, trash or debris in your fireplace or wood stove.
ο Allow ashes to cool before disposing of them. Place ashes in a tightly covered metal container and keep the ash container at least 10 feet away from your home and any other nearby buildings. Never empty the ash directly into a trash can or dumpster. Douse and saturate the ashes with water.
ο Pellet stoves create far less ash than traditional wood, but are still susceptible to creosote build up and should still have their chimney swept annually.
ο Think hard before installing an older stove, as many are not up to code and require larger clearances than more modern stoves. New stoves are significantly more efficient and burn cleaner with fewer by-products.
ο When installing a new fireplace or stove, always use a qualified installer, and someone familiar with the stove and pipe you've purchased.
Brad White is a volunteer firefighter and currently serves as Fire Chief for Hot Sulphur Springs / Parshall Fire Protection District. Brad is also a project manager for Legacy Building Specialties and sees many fireplaces, new and old.