Experts share how to prevent chimney fires

  • Posted: Friday, January 25, 2013 12:45 a.m.
A house in Kannapolis was damaged last week by a fire that was caused by flames escaping the chimney. Submitted photo
A house in Kannapolis was damaged last week by a fire that was caused by flames escaping the chimney. Submitted photo

If you’re among those who try to get warm by a roaring fire when the temperatures drop, remember that gravitating to the fireplace could be hazardous if you don’t keep it and the chimney properly maintained.

Heating equipment, including fireplaces and chimneys, are the second leading cause of home fires in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association.


A week ago, a Kannapolis family was displaced after a faulty chimney was blamed for a fire at the Athens Street home they rented.

Firefighters with Kannapolis, Odell and Enochville fire departments extinguished the fire. The family had a smoke alarm, which alerted them to the 7 a.m. fire.

No one was injured in the fire, which had escaped through cracks in the chimney and extended out into the walls of the home and attic, fire officials said.

“If you have a chimney or fireplace, please have it checked,” said Michael Morris, owner of Morris Chimney Service.

Morris Chimney Service, based in Salisbury, provides chimney sweeping or brushing services. The company also inspects chimneys and reconstructs fireplaces.

“Even if you have a chimney that you don’t use, there could be water damage or a water leak,” Morris said.

He advises that homeowners not wait until the temperatures drop to have their chimneys checked.

Many of his clients have their chimneys brushed in the spring so that in the fall the work is already done. His busy season begins in August, or by Labor Day, he said.

He’s had a lot of customers recently who requested an inspection after buying a house. Morris Chimney Service has clients from Salisbury to near the South Carolina border. He said what the company has found in Salisbury is a lot of older chimneys.

Many were designed to burn coal and don’t have a lining system.

He recommends an annual inspection and sweeping.

There are do-it-yourself kits, but it can be messy, he said.

Homeowners are taking a risk of getting their furniture and home dirty with soot.

“It is very hard to clean soot,” he said.

Joe Beeker, owner of Rowan Chimney Works, agreed. He said if not properly cleaned, a chimney could cause a fire.

“Most of the time, we go out to those homes that had fires, people tell us the year before they tried to do something on their own,” Beeker said.

During an inspection, Beeker uses a camera to get a closer look into the fireplace. He tries to look for cracks in the clay tiles, missing mortar between the joints and loose brick, he said.

He estimates he performs an average of 300 inspections a year in a process that takes about an hour and a half.

There are precautions homeowners can take to prevent a chimney fire, Beeker said.

Wet wood that hasn’t been allowed to season or dry out for a year or two can cause a fire because of the creosote buildup. Creosote deposits can be thin and powdery to a tar-like substance.

Chimney fires occur when a buildup of creosote ignites and burns inside the chimney.

Starting a fire with pine, paper or cardboard can also cause a fire.

“Pine is real sticky inside and never dries out. No matter how old it is, it will always create the most creosote in wood,” Beeker said. He said using paper or cardboard to start the fire can cause it to ignite the creosote.

Salisbury Fire Battalion Chief David Morris said the Salisbury Fire Department had to respond to just one chimney fire over the last year. That was a mutual aid call in support of Granite Quarry Fire Department.

Morris recommends homeowners check to make sure they have an updraft. To determine if your fireplace has an updraft, Morris suggests homeowners light a match, blow it out and watch the direction of the smoke. An updraft means the smoke and will travel upward.

Tips to prevent chimney fires:
• Don’t burn wood unseasoned for at least a year

• Don’t burn pine
• Don’t use paper or cardboard to start the fire

• Call a professional chimney sweep

• Keep objects a minimum of 3 feet away

• Place a screen or door to keep logs from rolling out of the fireplace

• Place hot coals or embers in a metal bucket and place it outside away from any structures.

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