HOME: 101    Chimney Fires

    Every year around this time, we see

a spike in tragic news stories regarding

chimney fires.  The chimney fire is the

most common cause of all house fires

occurring  during the winter months.

Using a little bit of common sense and

a bit of maintenance, they are easily


    Wood-burning appliance chimneys

should be cleaned, at the barest

minimum, once a year. During the

warmer months when a chimney is not

in use, it can can become blocked by

rodents, birds, tree debris or even a

hornet’s nest.

    But the biggest problem is creosote

build up, and what actually determines

the need for cleaning is how dirty the

chimney flue has become.

    Cleaning the chimney should be based on actual usage. If your house includes a wood burning fireplace or wood stove, especially if you burn a lot of fires, but in particular if you are using green, unseasoned wood, or burning slow cool fires, or worst yet, slow cool small fires with green, unseasoned wood, the inside of your chimney can become plugged with creosote. It is this creosote which catches fire in a chimney fire.

    If you don’t regularly inspect and clean your own chimney throughout the winter months, you should have this service performed by a certified chimney sweep. Most sweeps can use a special camera to detect problems in the chimney, such as cracked or missing flue tiles or leaks into the interior of the building. Ceramic flue liners can break down not only from excessive creosote but also from water leaking into the chimney.

    Creosote forms in the chimney from the cooling of the byproducts of combustion - the substances given off when wood burns - as these substances exit the fireplace or wood stove, and flow up into the relatively cooler chimney where condensation occurs. Creosote is the resulting residue that sticks to the inner walls of the chimney.

    Creosote is black or brown in appearance, and can be crusty and flaky, or tar-like and sticky, or shiny and hard. Without looking, creosote build up can go undetected. If you see a build up at the top of the chimney, or a dark oil-like substance oozing out around the smoke stack where it enters the wall in your house, or out of the clean out door, then you already have a problem.

    Whether you have a masonry or a stainless steel chimney, and you know that you have had a chimney fire, you should be especially cautious if you plan to continue using that same chimney. Also, small chimney fires can occur without anyone being aware of them, and they may cause damage. One chimney fire can damage elements of the chimney - the second one could destroy your home.

    If you are in the house and you have a serious chimney fire, you will probably hear it. There could be a low roar coming from the stove or fireplace, or possibly loud, cracking noises. Flames or dark smoke will be visible at the top of the chimney.

    If this occurs, call 911 and get everyone out of the house. If you are able to do it safely, close the glass doors of the fireplace or close down any air inlets to the wood stove. Beyond this, any attempts to control the fire could result in more harm than good.

    Proper installation of the wood stove or fire place and chimney, and regular maintenance are the first steps to preventing a chimney fire. And remember:

    - Use seasoned woods only (dryness is more important than hard wood versus soft wood considerations).

    - Build smaller, hotter fires that burn more completely and produce less smoke.

    - Never toss cardboard boxes, wrapping paper, or trash into the stove or fireplace. The quick flash can spark a chimney fire.

    - Place a  stovepipe thermometer on the smoke stack in the house. A magnetic thermometer is cheap, helps to monitor flue temperatures, and will help you to establish, adjust and improve your wood burning method.

Campbell and Davies LLC    201 Dey St Suite 211 Ithaca, NY 14850   

607 216 0036    fax 607 216 0402   campbellanddavies@yahoo.com   


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