Winter is the perfect time for families to gather in the evening around the hearth, enjoying the warmth and conviviality of a burning fire. Your fireplace doesn’t only encourage family time; as an architectural feature, your fireplace and its chimney add intrinsic value to your home. However, those same assets also present the very real danger of fire unless the chimney is well maintained and properly cleaned.
How Chimney Fires Start
Inside a chimney is a lining called a “flue.” Together, the chimney and the flue funnel toxic gases — the byproducts of burning wood — out of the home and disperse them harmlessly into the air. When a chimney flue doesn’t get cleaned at least annually, the buildup of smoke artifacts can spark deadly home fires. Byproducts of combustion include water vapors, tar fog, unburned wood chips, smoke, gases, hydrocarbon, and various minerals. These artifacts mingle with the cooler air inside the chimney and cause condensation, which in turn causes the tarry substance known as creosote to accumulate on the walls of the flue.
Creosote is extremely flammable. Some conditions exacerbate its formation, such as:
- Particularly cool temperatures in the chimney
- Limited air supply
- Burning unseasoned wood
How to Know if Your Chimney Catches Fire
Two major types of chimney fires exist. The first is an explosive burning that usually is quite noticeable to homeowners, neighbors, and passersby; the other is much easier to overlook.
Explosive Chimney Fires
Some indicators of an explosive chimney fire include:
- Flames and thick smoke shooting out from the top of the chimney
- Dense smoke
- Low, rumbling noises like a train or low-flying plane motor
- Odor of intense heat
- Loud popping and cracking sounds
The dramatic sights, sounds, and smells of explosive chimney fires fortunately lead to them being detected quickly after ignition in many cases. But the damage to the home may already have been done.
Slow-Burning Chimney Fires
Slow-burning chimney fires can be insidious, as the damage occurs over time. Many homeowners are unaware that these fires can occur without their knowledge. The fires that go undetected still do extensive damage to chimneys and the homes themselves, affecting the stability of the structure and the safety of the residents. Below are some indications that your chimney has caught fire:
- The metal damper, chimney, or smoke-chamber connecting pipe is warped.
- There are signs of escaped smoke on the tile liners or the masonry’s mortar joints.
- The flue tiles have collapsed or cracked, or tiles are missing large pieces.
- The exterior masonry is cracked.
- The creosote is honeycombed and puffy.
- You see creosote particles on the ground or on the roof.
- The rain cap is dark or distorted.
- Antennae, satellite dishes, and roof materials close to the chimney show heat damage.
At this point, fixing the problem without permanent structural damage to the home occurring is still possible. Once the inspection is completed, the chimney sweep can offer recommendations on what will be needed in order to comply with safety guidelines and standards. If the damage is noted and repaired quickly before the condition deteriorates further, it could be an inexpensive fix (for example, installing some new flue tiles). Ignoring the problem only ups the cost exponentially while putting everyone — including close neighbors — in danger of a house fire breaking out.
How to Prevent a Chimney Fire
Preventive action is the best way to avoid the risks associated with chimney fires.
Reduce Creosote Buildup
Homeowners can reduce accumulations of creosote in their chimneys by making sure the fire gets enough air, only burning seasoned wood, and leaving the damper open enough — and as long as is needed — to eliminate smoke. Despite the best intentions and actions, it is still not possible to completely avoid creosote accumulating in chimney flues.
Schedule Annual Inspections and Cleanings
The frequency of chimney inspections depends, in part, on the frequency of fireplace usage. Those who burn fewer fires can probably get by with annual inspections, whereas homeowners who regularly enjoy basking in the warmth of a fire may want to get their chimneys inspected and cleaned twice a year or more.
Make sure that the chimney sweep you hire is certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA). That ensures that a qualified professional will clean and inspect your chimney for safety hazards and be able to identify telltale signs of chimney fires.
How a Chimney Sweep Operates
Modern chimney sweeps bear little resemblance to the 18th-century waifs roaming London’s streets with their blackened brooms. Their modern counterparts do full inspections — of the mortar, bricks, cap, crown, flashing, and flue tiles. If your home has a basement, we check the foundation for cracks and inspect the vent system. We also inspect the damper and clear out any accumulated debris.
Don’t jeopardize the safety of your home and family another day. Scheduling a chimney inspection and cleaning can give you peace of mind.