Firefighters: Dirty chimneys can cause house fires

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Chilly weather is moving into East Tennessee for the fall season, which means many in the area might start up their fireplaces.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, heating was the second leading cause of house fires, behind cooking.

If the fireplace (gas or wood) and chimney haven’t been touched in several months, chimney sweeps and firefighters said they need to be cleaned before being used.

“Winter time, we obviously worry about chimney fires when people start using wood stoves and chimneys to warm their home and keep them warm. Second thing we worry about with that is whether or not that chimney’s been inspected,” Jeff Bagwell, spokesperson for Rural Metro Fire, said.

Bagwell said that Rural Metro firefighters will inspect and lightly clean chimneys for subscribers, but if there is too much creosote–a dark brown or black flammable tar deposited from smoke– in the chimney, then firefighters will suggest calling a chimney sweep.

Joshua Cate, owner of Tennessee Fireplace and Chimney, said creosote build-up is categorized by three different stages.

The first stage is slightly more than a normal amount of the tar and would only need light cleaning.

If creosote reaches the third stage, it could start a flue fire.

“It’s going to start smoking a lot. So you’ll see a lot of smoke coming out the top of the chimney. And then, at which point, when it finally ignites, it will sound, people say, like a jet engine or or a freight train and it’s really got some force at that point,” Cate said.

Bagwell said when that happens, and a fire erupts through the chimney, a chunk of creosote could land on the roof or next to the house and start a fire.

Cate said people can clean chimneys and fireplaces on their own, but there are certain areas or issues people can’t see or fix without the proper equipment.

If the chimney has stage 3 creosote build-up, then Cate and his crews would have to chemically remove it. A regular chimney broom wouldn’t do anything.

Bagwell said he sees a lot of chimney fires involving a certain kind of chimney that was a popular to build in the 90’s: a wooden box-frame built around a metal, double-wall flue pipe.

He said that if the flue pipe wasn’t well maintained, then the heat or fire could leak through to the wood and lead to the entire house on fire.

Bagwell and Cate said that a similar issue could happen with a different kind of chimney: brick or masonry.

Cate said that masonry style fireplaces easily crack with too much heat, and if it cracks, the chimney will essentially explode.

Cate has the tools to look for those issues. The best tool he has is a video scanner.

“There’s no such thing as a safe chimney because it is a fire in the middle of your house. So we want to alleviate as much of the risk as possible by inspecting everything. Now we’re doing the video scan of the flue system, we’re getting in the attics, we’re checking clearance to combustibles,” Cate said.

Cate said fireplace and chimney owners shouldn’t wait for winter to call for an inspection.

He said that at the end of the day creosote is carcinogenic, and if the byproduct is built up in the chimney during the summer, it could still create health issues.

“A lot of the newer houses are really air-tight. The chimney is not really an air-tight structure with the damper in there, so a lot of times that will pull air in if you’re running the AC in the summer. (The damper) will pull that smell into the house,” Cate said.

Cate said that gas-burning fireplaces also create creosote, but not as much as wood.

He said that manufacturers typically require the fireplace to be inspected annually.

Both Cate and Bagwell said that specific types of wood can cause more creosote than others.

Many people might like using pine wood because it burns easier, but the two advise against it.

“Pine is the leading contributor toward creosote. With pine being a leading contributor, then it just causes a more rapid build up. People don’t get them cleaned as often, and it will build up on top of build up,” Bagwell said.

Cate said that the only type of wood that should be used is hard wood, such as oak, hickory or white oak; but also wood that has been cured for at least six months to a year.

As far as leaving a fire burning in the fireplace before heading to bed, Bagwell said it’s fine, but the damper needs to be used so the fire doesn’t continue to grow.

Bagwell said a fire extinguisher should be easily accessible if using the fireplace, and every room in the home should have working smoke detectors.

He said people using fireplaces or furnaces should also have a carbon monoxide detector in the same room, and close to the ground because carbon monoxide doesn’t rise.

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