Nearly 18,000 fires are caused by wood-burning appliances every year. Over 4,000 of those are residential fires caused by wood stoves. Three out of four residential building heating fires are confined within chimneys, flues or flue barriers.
Do we offer those statistics to scare you away from enjoying your wood stove or fireplace? Not at all! Nothing can substitute for the glowing heat and soothing crackle of a real wood burner, and we wish for you to enjoy those comforts this winter. But as a leading provider of homeowners insurance in Iowa, we would also like you to take every reasonable measure to avoid a disastrous and potentially life-threatening chimney fire.
What Causes Chimney Fires?
The majority of chimney fires begin when there is flammable blockage inside the flue. This blockage is typically made of creosote: a byproduct of wood combustion that is predominantly made of flammable tar. Creosote can ignite at temperatures as low as 451 °F. Since the temperature of a burning fireplace can easily exceed 1,500 °F, it is easy to appreciate how large deposit of creosotes could lead to disaster.
Creosote is not the only material that can ignite inside a chimney. Nests constructed by squirrels, bats and birds present a significant risk of chimney fires. Chimneys that aren’t fitted with caps may also accumulate flammable leaves and other organic debris within their flues. A chimney also has a greater risk of catching fire when an accelerant such as lighter fluid is applied to its stove or fireplace. Many chemicals burn at temperatures in excess of several thousand degrees, which can quickly ignite a creosote deposit.
The Two Types of Chimney Fires
A fast-burning chimney fire can reach a temperature of 2,000 °F, which is hot enough to quickly destroy the flue’s tile and liner. A fast-burning chimney fire makes no secret of itself. It produces loud noises, thick black smoke and an intense smell, and even shoots sparks out of the chimney top.
A slow-burning chimney fire doesn’t receive enough air to make its occurrence obvious. A chimney inspector is usually the first person to know that a slow-burning fire took place, although the damage it leaves behind creates a significant risk of a more damaging fire in the future.
If you notice either type of chimney fire, call 911 as soon as you are safely able. Close any doors or windows before leaving your home (if doing so does not place your or your family’s safety in jeopardy), as that will reduce the amount of air available to supply the chimney fire.
How to Prevent a Chimney Fire
We already touched on one way you can help to prevent a chimney fire: never apply accelerant to the fireplace or stove. Aside from that, there are five important things you can do to keep your home safe from disaster.
- Install a chimney cap. A chimney cap creates a physical barrier between the flue and any organic materials that can fall into the chimney. A good chimney cap will also bar animals from exploring your chimney (and possibly getting into your home).
- Only burn proper firewood. Firewood should have dried for at least six to 18 months before it is burned in a fireplace. “Green” wood contains excess moisture that will produce more smoke and creosote. Green wood will also generate less heat than seasoned firewood when it is burned, so it’s well worth waiting for firewood to dry out.
- Schedule annual chimney inspections and cleanings. A qualified chimney professional will ensure that all the various components of your chimney are in full working order, as well as remove flammable creosote from its flue, liner and damper. The Chimney Safety Institute of America advises hiring a chimney professional once every year.
- Make certain your chimney receives an adequate supply of air. A chimney that receives enough air will minimize the production of creosote by allowing fires to burn hotter. You can promote a greater air supply to your chimney by fully opening its damper and doors while the fireplace or stove is in use, as well as keeping the chimney free of debris.
- Ensure your chimney’s liner is suitably sized and in good condition. Whether it is made of clay, metal or ceramic, a good chimney liner will protect the chimney walls from heat and corrosion. It will also safely direct heat and smoke to the outdoors. An undersized chimney liner will allow smoke to enter the house; a broken one creates an increased risk of fire.
Most house fires are preventable, but no amount of caution can keep your home and belongings completely safe from fire. If you live in Iowa and would like to protect your most valuable asset to the greatest extent you can, then we welcome you to contact The Hoffman Agency today.