Chimney Fires

        The last thing you are likely to be thinking about is the condition of your chimney. Dirty chimneys can cause chimney fires, which damage structures, destroy homes and injure or kill people.

Chimney fires can burn explosively - noisy and dramatic enough to be detected by passersby. Flames or dense smoke may shoot from the top of the chimney.   Homeowners report being startled by a low rumbling sound that reminds them of a freight train or a low flying air plane.   However, those are only the chimney fires you know about.   Slow-burning chimney fires don't get enough air or have enough fuel to be as dramatic or visible.   But, the temperatures they reach are very high and can cause as much damage to the chimney structure - and nearby combustible parts of the house.   With proper chimney system care, chimney fires are entirely preventable.

Chimney Fire

Creosote & Chimney Fires:
What You Need to Know

        Fireplaces and wood stoves are designed to safely contain wood-fueled fires, while providing heat for a home.  

As these substances exit the fireplace or wood stove, and flow up into the relatively cooler chimney, condensation occurs.   The resulting residue that sticks to the inner walls of the chimney is called creosote.   Creosote is black or brown in appearance.   It can be crusty and flaky - tar-like, drippy and sticky - or shiny and hardened.   Often, all forms will occur in one chimney system.  
Whatever form it takes, creosote is highly combustible.   If it builds up in sufficient quantities - and catches fire inside the chimney flue - the result will be a chimney fire.   Although any amount of creosote can burn, sweeps are concerned when creosote builds up in sufficient quantities to sustain a long, hot, destructive chimney fire.  

Certain conditions encourage the buildup of creosote, restricted air supply, unseasoned wood and cooler-than-normal chimney temperatures are all factors that can accelerate the buildup of creosote on chimney flue walls.

Air supply: The air supply on fireplaces may be restricted by closed glass doors or by failure to open the damper wide enough to move heated smoke up the chimney rapidly (the longer the smoke's "residence time" in the flue, the more likely is it that creosote will form).   A wood stove's air supply can be limited by closing down the stove damper or air inlets too soon and too much, and by improperly using the stovepipe damper to restrict air movement.  

Burning unseasoned firewood: Because so much energy is used initially just to drive off the water trapped in the cells of the logs - burning green wood keeps the resulting smoke cooler, as it moves through the system, than if dried, seasoned wood is used.  

Cool flue temperatures: In the case of wood stoves, fully-packed loads of wood (that give large cool fires and eight or 10 hour burn times) contribute to creosote buildup.   Condensation of the unburned by-products of combustion also occurs more rapidly in an exterior chimney, for example, than in a chimney that runs through the center of a house and exposes only the upper reaches of the flue to the elements.  

How Chimney Fires
Damage Chimneys

        Masonry chimneys.   When chimney fires occur in masonry chimneys - whether the flues are an older, unlined type or are tile lined to meet current safety codes - the high temperatures at which they burn (around 2000' F) can "melt" mortar, crack tiles, cause liners to collapse and damage the outer masonry material.   Most often, tiles crack and mortar is displaced, which provides a pathway for flames to reach the combustible wood frame of the house.   One chimney fire may not harm a home.   A second could possible burn it down.   The heat from a chimney fire can also conduct through a perfectly sound chimney to ignite nearby combustibles.

Pre-fabricated, factory-built, metal chimneys. To be installed in most jurisdictions in the United States, factory-built, metal chimneys that are designed to vent wood burning stoves or pre-fabricated metal fireplaces must pass special tests determined by Underwriter's Laboratories (U.L.).   Under chimney fire conditions, damage to these systems still may occur, usually in the form of buckled or warped seams and joints on the inner liner.   When pre-fabricated, factory-built metal chimneys are damaged by a chimney fire, they should NOT be used and must be replaced!

Keep The Fire You Want
From Starting One You Don't

Chimney fires don't have to happen. Here are some ways to avoid them:

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.
Build smaller, hotter fires that burn more completely and produce less smoke.
Never burn cardboard boxes, wrapping paper, trash or Christmas trees; these can spark a chimney fire.
Install stovepipe thermometers to help monitor flue temperatures where wood stoves are in use, so you can adjust burning practices as needed.
Have the chimney inspected and cleaned on a regular basis.

Signs You've Had A Chimney Fire

        Since chimney fires can occur without anyone being aware of them ... and since damage from such fires can endanger a home and its occupants, how do you tell if you've experienced a chimney fire?

Here are the signs a professional chimney sweep looks for:

"Puffy" creosote, with rainbow colored streaks, that has expanded beyond creosotes normal form.
Warped metal of the damper, metal smoke chamber, connector pipe or factory-built metal chimney.
Cracked or collapsed flue tiles, or tiles with large chunks missing.
Discolored and distorted rain cap.
Creosote flakes and pieces found on the roof or ground.
Roofing material damaged from hot creosote.
Cracks in exterior masonry.
Evidence of smoke escaping through mortar joints of masonry or tile liners.
Results Of A Chimney Fire

        If you think a chimney fire has occurred, call a professional chimney sweep for a proper evaluation.   If your suspicions are confirmed, a professional sweep will be able to make recommendations about how to bring the system back into compliance with safety standards.   Depending on the situation, you might need a few flue tiles replaced, a relining system installed or an entire chimney rebuilt.   Each situation is unique and will dictate its own solution.

What To Do
If You Have A Chimney Fire

If you realize that you've had a chimney fire, follow these steps:
2. Call the Fire Department.
If you can do so without risk to yourself, these additional steps may help save your home (remember, however, that homes are replaceable; lives are not):

Put a chimney fire extinguisher into the fireplace or wood stove.
Close the glass doors on the fireplace.
Close the air inlets on the wood stove.
Vacuum remaining soot and ash on firebox floor.
Use a garden hose to spray down the roof (not the chimney) so the fire won't spread to the rest of the structure.
Monitor the exterior chimney temperature throughout the house for at least 2 or 3 hours after the fire is out.

Once it's over, call a professional chimney sweep to inspect for damage.   Chimney fire damage and repair normally is covered by homeowner insurance policies.

Tips for Avoiding a Chimney Fire

        Over 25,000 chimney fires in the U.S. last year were responsible for over $120 million in property damage.   Chimney fires can quickly spread into house fires in a short period of time.   No one ever wants to experience a chimney fire, or a fire in the chimney that spreads to other areas of the home.   This is an important issue, and there are things everyone can do to protect themselves and their families from the chances of a chimney fire ever affecting them.   The main reason chimney fires happen, improper usage and care of wood-burning appliances.   The importance of regular chimney inspections and sweepings cannot be understated, as they are the one true way to minimize the likelihood of a chimney fire sparking in the first place.   The fact is that clean chimneys simply don’t catch fire.

Causes Of Chimney Fires
        When wood is burnt, the emissions are expelled into the chimney.   As these gases rise, they cool down and form creosote - a tar-like substance that sticks to your chimney or chimney liner.   Creosote is extremely flammable and can be lit by even a small spark or floating ember from the fire below.

Knowledge is key to reducing the potential of a chimney fire happening in your home.  

What Can Be Done to Prevent a Chimney Fire?

        Prevention is the first line of defense.   Using smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in multiple locations within your home.   Make sure you only burn dry, seasoned wood.   Having your chimney swept regularly (more frequently if you use your fireplace more heavily).   Never burn trash, cardboard or other types of waste, as these are more likely to produce sparks.   Chimney fires can be dangerous, but the good news is that they are almost entirely preventable.   Homeowners must be careful to only burn materials that are ready and meant to be burned.   While using the correct fuel is important, a chimney fire can still occur even after taking all of the necessary precautions.   Regular chimney inspections and sweepings are a critical part of your home maintenance routine.   If your chimney is clean, the chances of a chimney fire occurring are very slim.   Don’t wait to call to schedule your inspection and cleaning.   Our certified chimney technicians will help to ensure that you and your family have a safe and happy heating season.  

Home Fire Safety Information


Have a Plan
The most important thing to consider about home fire safety is to have a plan.   Practice as a whole household proper procedures in case there is a fire.   Pick a spot a safe distance from your home as a meet-up spot to gather in case of a fire.   Fire extinguishers, ladders, and proper procedures for exiting a burning house or building will help keep you and your loved ones safe.
Take any and all alarms seriously
When a smoke or carbon monoxide detector goes off, it is for a real warning.   Take all precautions seriously from the moment you become aware of an alarm or other problem such as seeing or smelling smoke.   If an alarm goes off, GET OUT!   It is important to notify the proper authorities, but do so after you have ensured your safety and to those around you.
Fire Extinguishers
Most fires start small and can be contained if acted upon quickly.   Use fire extinguishers on small fires if available and accessible.   Not only is a fire extinguisher a good protection, be familiar with its operation.   Never operate a fire extinguisher if you do not know how to use it.
Take caution with closed doors
When evacuating a house that is on fire, always feel the wooden part of the door prior to opening it.   If the door is warm or hot never open it.   The door handle maybe hot enough to burn you very badly.   Opening the door can bring more oxygen to the fire feeding it and possibly bringing you into more danger.   Find another way out of the room.   If you cannot escape, signal for help.   Window ladders can be useful for second story rooms.   Never use a non-approved ladder.
Stay low to the ground
Heat and smoke will rise, so being close to the floor will help keep you safer.   Keeping low to the ground will help reduce the amount of smoke inhalation.   Crawl and keep your hand on the wall to keep from being disoriented.
Once out Stay Out
Once you reach safety, dial 911 if someone has not already, and never re-enter a burning building.   Meet up with other members of the home at a site that was previously chosen for this type of situation.   Ensure everyone has been accounted for.   Stay clear from danger and await for authorities to arrive.

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(Source: CSIA

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