Williston Fire Department sees rise in chimney fires (11/13/08)

Now is the time to clean chimneys, fire officials say

Nov. 13, 2008

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

When Williston fire crews rushed to Lamplite Acres on Friday morning, they weren’t sure what to expect. A call had gone out for a structure fire, which may have started at the residence’s stove and chimney.


    Observer photo by Tim Simard
Williston firefighters Dave Auriemma and Lt. George Beatty check to see if fire has spread into a chimney at a residence in Lamplite Acres. Fire crews responded to a reported structure fire on Nov. 7 and found smoke spilling out of the house because of faulty chimney piping.

Upon arrival, firefighters found a chimney fire, something that is becoming all too common this fall for firefighters across the state.

As cold weather sets in and Williston residents start burning wood in stoves and fireplaces for warmth, fire departments will undoubtedly respond to a rising number of calls for chimney fires. State and local fire officials say this is the time of year when homeowners start using fireplaces — and sometimes run into major problems.

“This is the season and we’re trying to educate people more on (chimney fire) prevention,” said Mike Greenia, assistant state fire marshal and fire education coordinator for the Berlin-based Division of Fire Safety.

At the Lamplite Acres home, Williston and South Burlington firefighters found smoke emanating from the residence. Williston firefighter Keith Baker said “there wasn’t much of a fire,” but plenty of smoke had spread from the chimney piping into the insulation of a recently built extension of the home.

Baker said the homeowner was attempting to burn some papers in the stove. He said the owner noticed the home filling with smoke from the stove and quickly called the fire department. It was determined there was faulty piping due to age and burning residue that caused the heavy smoke.

Baker said firefighters entered the home and pulled some of the ceiling down and insulation out to make sure a fire wasn’t spreading within the structure. Baker said the large number of fire personnel — 12 in all — was necessary for a reported structure fire. Chimney incidents can quickly spread and destroy an entire home, he said.

Greenia agreed with Baker about the dangers of chimney fires. Greenia said chimneys are not designed to have fires break out inside, but instead serve as a conduit for escaping smoke. A fire in a chimney can break down the mortars and bricks of the structure, thus threatening the home with a dangerous inferno.

“If the fire breaks out of the chimney and into the structure, then we have a major problem,” Greenia said.

He said the state does not have a complete list tracking the number of chimney fires in recent years, or how many proved fatal, although the state plans to compile the stats come January. But trends in recent years suggest the problem is becoming more frequent.

Any time home heating fuel prices have increased, so have chimney fires and fire deaths, Greenia said. He said Vermont led the nation in fire deaths per capita in the 1980s, when home fuel prices were high.

Bob Patterson, regional manager for the Williston branch of the Division of Fire Safety, said the best way to prevent chimney fires is to have stoves, fireplaces and chimneys inspected and cleaned by professional chimney sweeps. It’s something all homeowners who burn wood for heating should do at the beginning of the cold season.

“We do know the majority of chimney fires begin at the vent pipe, right near the stove, and travel up the chimney,” Patterson said.

Burning dry wood, which is better for heating efficiency, can also cut down on creosote — a wood-fire residue that builds up and can catch on fire if not regularly removed from chimneys — and possible fires. But Vermont currently has a dry wood shortage, and Patterson said many homeowners have been turning to damper, greener wood. It can take wood a full year to dry to its best heating efficiency.

Green wood takes more energy to burn, reducing heating efficiency and allowing more creosote to build up.

Greenia added homeowners should not burn wrapping paper or cardboard in stoves and fireplaces, as they emit dangerous chemicals that can spark chimney fires.

Meanwhile, fire crews in Williston have been kept busy. In addition to the chimney fire on Friday, crews responded to another one on Nov. 3. The fire was called in immediately after the department had finished training for chimney fires. Baker said crews found an abundance of creosote in the chimney.

Smoke had filled the home and sparks were coming out the chimney when 16 firefighters arrived on the scene, Baker said. He added fire crews have responded to several other chimney related fires in recent week.

“I suspect we’re going to see more problems,” Baker said, referring to the impending winter.

While getting a chimney and stove cleaned is a good first step in preventing chimney fires, Patterson said problems can sometimes arise a month after a sweep. That’s why educating oneself on proper maintenance is vital in protecting a chimney and the home in general, Greenia said.

“It all comes down to maintenance,” Greenia said.

For more information on chimney fire prevention, visit the Division of Fire Safety Web site at www.dps.state.vt.us/fire/.