A roaring fire in the middle of winter can not only heat your home, but it can lift your mood with its warmth and soft crackling. Relaxing in front of a fire is a wonderful way to end your day. However, danger awaits those who have a damaged chimney. Do you remember when you last had your chimney inspected for damage?

The Real Risks of a Chimney Fire

If your chimney is cracked or broken, it can let smoke, heat and toxic gases, including carbon monoxide, into your home. It is also possible for your home to catch fire. Chimney fires are caused by a buildup of soot and debris, which is also referred to as creosote. Many people who have experienced a chimney fire have reported hearing a popping noise or a low rumbling and a very hot smell.

Most homeowners don’t notice a chimney fire before someone outside does. They can see flames or sparks coming out of the chimney. As the fire gets worse, homeowners will see dense smoke that starts to back up into the house. Not only can a chimney fire cause extensive damage to the chimney structure, it can spread to the rest of the house. Homes that are close to other homes can be at risk of catching fire, but the risk is even higher for condos or townhomes with multiple units housed within a single building.

Looking for Chimney Damage

Most chimney damage is easy to see, but there are times when it can be hidden. Below is a checklist for helping ensure that homeowner association residents can safely enjoy their fireplace without a disaster occurring.

  • Check to see if the chimney is leaning or if bricks have fallen.
  • Inspect your exterior metal chimney pipe for shiny areas. This could indicate that your chimney has shifted.
  • Inspect the chimney joints in the attic, at the roofline and where the chimney is connected to the firebox.
  • Inspect the fireplace for any fallen debris.
  • Inspect the chimney for any animals that may have become stuck.
  • Take a screwdriver and poke at the mortar between the stones or bricks. If the mortar crumbles, the chimney is unsafe and needs work.
  • If you are not comfortable with the safety of your chimney, consult a contractor or licensed engineer.

Chimney Fire Prevention

There are really three essential steps to preventing a chimney fire. First, get your chimney cleaned at least once a year. Second, always use the right firewood. Third, ensure your fireplace burns at a high heat. Here’s why these steps are so important:

  • Chimney cleaning: While it does cost money to have someone come in and clean your chimney, it is much less expensive than to have to repair damage from a fire in your chimney. Chimney cleaning traditionally runs about $100 to $200. It can cost up to $4,000 to repair a chimney that was damaged in a fire. That doesn’t include any damage – from fire or smoke – to the home.
  • The right firewood: Using a fireplace to heat your home is effective and inexpensive. However, if you use firewood that hasn’t been seasoned or is still too green, there is a risk of creosote buildup. That increases your risk of a chimney fire. Ensure that the firewood you use has been seasoned or dried for a year or more. Consider investing in a wood moisture meter. That will let you see whether your firewood is ready to burn.
  • Burn your fireplace at a high heat: The lower the temperature of your fire, the more unburnt particles and smoke will stick to the walls of your chimney. Keep the fireplace hot and open windows or use a fan to help circulate the heat.

What to Do if You Experience a Chimney Fire

Don’t try to fight a chimney fire by yourself with such things as baking soda or salt. Instead, close the dampers, call 911 for the fire department and get out of the house. The firefighters will have the right equipment to put the fire out and their thermal imaging devices can determine if the fire is in other areas of the house.

Chimney and Fireplace Safety Reminders

If your homeowners’ association does not send out reminders to its members about chimney and fireplace safety, you should request that they do so. In fact, the association should consider listing a couple of different chimney service companies that have been vetted for members to use. This will remind homeowners to make the call for yearly maintenance on the chimney and ensure a safe winter season without having to worry about the risk of chimney fires.