Chimney Fire Prevention
By Don Gardner
Fire Prevention Officer
Orofino Fire Department
As more people are returning to heating their homes with
wood this year, we need to take a good look at our wood stoves
and chimneys. Already this year, Orofino Fire Department has
been called out to a number of chimney fires.
A chimney is an important piece of home safety. A chimney
vents products of combustion (smoke and carbon monoxide) from
your home, and it allows you to heat your home. Don’t
take your chimney for granted. We strongly urge you, if you
have a stove or fireplace, to check the chimney for any damage
that may have occurred in the past heating season. If it is
difficult to examine the chimney, have a local chimney repairman,
chimney "sweep," or dealer exam it. Schedule a yearly
inspection and cleaning of your chimney today. If you have
any damage, repair it now!
What is a chimney fire?
Chimney fires begin in your chimney and are fueled by excess
creosote, or soot. Creosote is a product of incomplete combustion;
it can take many forms: a sooty powder, a hard black glaze,
a black tar-like substance, or the appearance of burnt marshmallows.
Creosote lines the chimney's walls; this enables the heat
venting in the chimney to ignite the creosote.
Chimney fires start in the chimney. Depending on the condition
of your chimney, fire can spread through your home through
cracks in the chimney's missing or loose mortar; it can also
bend metal chimney liners and create cracks. A chimney fire
is super-heated, and the fire can also spread through your
house through radiant heat. It can easily spread to your rooftop
- or to your neighbor's house!
Most chimney fires happen for one simple reason: improper
usage and care of wood-burning appliances. (Faulty installation
is another key reason, but it ranks a distant second to the
Chimney fires don't have to happen. Here are some ways to
- Use seasoned woods only (dryness is more important than
hard wood versus soft wood considerations).
- Build smaller, hotter fires that bum more completely
and produce less smoke.
- Never burn cardboard boxes, wrapping paper, trash, or
Christmas trees; these can spark a chimney fire.
- Have the chimney inspected and cleaned on a regular basis.
- Be sure that the chimney and stovepipe were installed
correctly in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations
and local codes.
- Minimize creosote formation by using proper stove size,
and avoid using low damper settings for extended periods
- Always operate your appliance within the manufacturer's
recommended temperature limits. Too low a temperature increases
creosote buildup, and too high a temperature may eventually
cause damage to the chimney and result in a fire.
- Frequently look for signs of structural failure.
What to Do if You Have a Chimney Fire
Chimney fires can burn explosively - noisy and dramatic enough
to be detected by neighbors or 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 - as
their more spectacular cousins.
If you realize a chimney fire is occurring, follow these
- Get everyone out of the house, including yourself.
- 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, but lives are not:
- Close the damper or the air inlet controls to the fireplace
or stove. This will limit air supply and reduce the fire's
- Grab your fire extinguisher (you do have one, right?).
Open the door to the fireplace or stove just enough so you
can insert the extinguisher's nozzle. Shoot the contents
of the entire canister inside and shut the door. What you
don't want to use is water. It could make things worse by
causing more steam and gas to enter the chimney, which could
crack or warp it.
A quick way to snuff out a chimney fire is to use a chimney-fire
suppressor available under several brand names. These devices
snuff out flames by filling the chimney with a mixture of
gases that rise up the chimney and cut off the oxygen supply
to the fire. If you use your fireplace regularly, it might
be worth keeping some of them around.
Don't go inside your home until the fire department tells
you it's safe to do so. When you do, don't be surprised if
things don't look very good. A large chimney fire can dump
a great deal of smoke and soot inside.
DO NOT light another fire in the stove or
fireplace until you've had the chimney professionally inspected
When removing ashes from your home:
- Make sure the ashes have thoroughly cooled.
- Dispose of ashes a sealed metal container.
- Always store ashes away from your home and other combustibles.
- Do not store the container in your home or on your wood
Most of us do take our chimney for granted. Like an old favorite,
we know it's there, it never breaks, and it never lets us
down - always reliable. This year let’s give it a little
attention and prevent chimney fires.