Chimney fires increase as temperatures drop

By Teresa Herriman

The Courier-Herald

Chilly temperatures bring with them a time-honored tradition of snuggling before the warmth of a toasty fireplace or wood stove. But before getting too comfortable, local firefighters would like to ask, "When was the last time your chimney was inspected?"

East Pierce Fire and Rescue crews have reason to be concerned. They have already been called to numerous chimney fires since cool temperatures swept the area a couple of weeks ago. Although none of the fires have caused an injury or loss of life, they have created havoc for the families whose homes were damaged by smoke or fire.

Poor maintenance or inadequate cleaning of chimneys and furnaces typically is the cause of this type of fire. The primary culprit is creosote, a natural by-product of wood fires. Creosote is created when hot smoke and ash exit the fireplace or wood stove through the relatively cooler chimney, creating condensation that tends to stick to the inner walls of the chimney. The resulting residue, or creosote, is highly combustible.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends annual chimney inspections. Heavy users need more frequent check-ups.

Another common cause of chimney fires is broken masonry. A visual inspection may reveal cracks in the mortar that could allow the fire to escape the confines of the chimney, igniting the wood house frame. Loose bricks, crumbling mortar, broken liners, dark stains or white powder indicate problems with masonry chimneys.

Cracks in the flue liner are much more difficult to see, but are just as dangerous.

A licensed chimney sweep is needed to manually clean the flue of creosote and inspect the structure for disrepair.

Chimney cleaning logs, promoted for their ability to remove creosote through catalytic action when burned in a fireplace or wood stove, are not recommended by the Chimney Safety Institute of America, a non-profit, educational institution focused on the prevention of chimney fires. The organization says the products may create a false sense of security among consumers, causing them to forgo conventional chimney inspections and cleaning. Use of these products alone, they say, is not an adequate substitute for mechanical chimney cleaning and inspection.

When a chimney fire occurs, someone outside the home is often the first to alert the occupants, East Pierce Fire and Rescue assistant chief John McDonald said.

"In most cases they have no idea they have a chimney fire," he said.

In the event of a chimney fire, McDonald recommends shutting the damper and calling 9-1-1.

"What starts out as a chimney fire can become a structure fire if there are any leaks in the flue or the chimney," he said.

Even if the fire appears to have been extinguished, it's still a good idea to contact the fire department, he added. Sparks can land on the roof or come in contact with combustibles.

The following are tips to prevent help prevent chimney fires.

€ Have your chimney inspected and cleaned before each heating season by a qualified chimney sweep. The chimney service trade is not regulated, nor are chimney sweeps licensed in most states. The best way to ensure quality service is to hire members of a certified association or guild.

€ Burn only dry, seasoned wood in a fireplace or wood-burning stove.

€ Never use any type of flammable or combustible liquid to start a fire.

€ Do not burn plastic, garbage or wood that has been treated with a preservative, paint or any other chemical.

€ Clean out the fireplace or wood stove after each use. Place the ashes in a metal container. Place the container outside the home, away from any combustible materials.

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