Danger lurks in your fireplace

January 03, 1998

Danger lurks in your fireplace


Staff Writer

With the arrival of the first heavy snowfall and frigid temperatures, the urge to light up the fireplace has hit many area homes.

Fire and safety officials want to ensure that is all that is lit up.

Residents with fireplaces, real or fake, need to take proper precautions and maintenance steps so they can enjoy the warmth of the fire and lessen potential hazards.

Washington County firefighters responded to at least two chimney fires last week, one which displaced the homeowner temporarily, fire officials said.


On Friday night, a Hancock area man was temporarily out of a home after an ember from a wood stove in his Corner Road basement ignited nearby wood being stored for the stove, said Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Allen Ward.

Most fire wood should be stored outside or in a shed. Bring inside what wood is to be burned at the time, but do not store wood near the wood stove's door, Ward said.

A chimney fire last Sunday night on Mount Carmel Church Road could have claimed the lives of two people, said Curt Fales, Deputy Fire Chief of the First Hose Co. of Boonsboro Inc.

Despite flames three to four feet high shooting out of the chimney, the homeowner left the fire to burn out, Fales said.

But it didn't.

Fales said the couple was lucky the fire stayed in the walls long enough for the couple to escape unhurt after the husband woke up Monday morning and saw smoke coming out of the electrical receptacles in the living room wall.

The fire probably stayed alive because of soot built up in the chimney, Fales said.

"Even if people don't want the pain of the fire department being there, they should call," Fales said.

Fales said most chimney fires his company responds to are caused by people burning wood that hasn't dried out enough.

Wood should be left to air dry for at least four months, preferably a year, before burning it, he said.

The chimney corrodes when sappy, wet wood is burnt, Fales said.

The sap coats the sides of the chimney to the point it can be as gummy as rubber, Fales said. Then the chimney clogs so the next time the fire is ignited the chimney catches on fire or the house fills with smoke.

Chimneys used often should be cleaned at least once a year, fire and safety officials said.

Don't be fooled

Some residents might think they have escaped the dangers of chimney fires with simulated fireplaces, but there are still precautions that must be taken.

Some installations of unvented gas fireplace logs have been disapproved in recent months because people are trying to put them in fake fireplaces, said Gary Pryor, Hagerstown's plumbing and mechanical inspector.

About six years ago when unvented logs became available, salespeople said the logs could be used in any fireplace, but that's not true, Pryor said.

They can be used in a fireplace with the damper closed because the smoke and carbon monoxide can escape through the crack around the damper into the chimney, he said.

Fake fireplaces don't have chimneys so the carbon monoxide levels can build up in the home, Pryor said.

Even when using an unvented gas fireplace log in a real fireplace, a window must be kept open, Pryor said.

Early warning

Residents who burn any type of fossil fuel should consider getting a carbon monoxide detector, said Mike Weller, Hagerstown's public fire educator. That includes natural gas, fuel oil, kerosene, gas-fired hot water heaters, pellet stoves, coal, or wood-burning stoves or fireplaces.

Anything with a flame in the house poses the danger of releasing dangerous carbon monoxide gas, he said.

Follow instructions on the package carefully so the detector is installed in the proper place, Weller said. Also, make sure the detector has a Underwriters Laboratories or UL listing. That means it has been tested by an independent organization to make sure it's safe, he said.

Smoke detectors should be on every living level and in each bedroom, Weller said. Again, follow the instructions.

Make sure the detectors are working and check the batteries twice a year, officials said.

Preventative maintenance is critical, whether the heater is a gas log, kerosene heater, wood stove, fireplace or furnace, Weller said. Call a professional for help.

If there is any hint of a fire in the chimney, even if residents think they've put the fire out, call the fire department, Weller said.

"Have us come check it to make sure everything is safe. That's why we're here," Weller said.

Signs of a possible chimney fire include a strong odor of smoke in the home after the fire was extinguished, a haze of smoke and unusual noises in the chimney, such as roaring or popping sounds, he said.

"When in doubt, call," Weller said.

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