Fire officials: Keep chimneys clean this winter

Kendall Hatch

Now that winter has finally descended, Massachusetts fire officials are encouraging residents to take extra care while warming up by the fireplace.

Chimney fires, caused by a build-up of flammable residue in the flue, or hollow chamber, of a chimney spike in the winter months, said Lt. David Iarussi of the Ashland Fire Department.

"This is definitely the time of year for it - as soon as it gets cold," he said. "We get multiple chimney fires every year."

Heating is the second-leading cause of household fires in Massachusetts, according to the state fire marshal's office. (Cooking is the first.)

There were 949 chimney fires in the state last year, accounting for 34 percent of the fires linked to heating systems.

The fires were responsible for three civilian injuries, six firefighter injuries and caused about $2 million in property damage last year, according to the fire marshal.

Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the fire marshal, said that due to the economy, officials were initially worried about a huge uptick in heating fires as people tried alternative methods to heat their homes.

"We really thought we were going see a huge increase," she said. "We were afraid that people were going to be trying to cut costs and skimp on maintenance."

Surprisingly, Mieth said that deaths and injuries from chimney, fireplace and woodstove fires were down in 2008 from 2007, which she chalked up to a greater public understanding of household heating fires.

Even so, fire officials want to stress the importance of preventing chimney fires, which can decimate a home.

Chimney fires are typically ignited when there is an excess amount of creosote, a byproduct of burning wood, that has accumulated in a chimney.

In order to actively reduce the potential for a chimney fire, Milford Fire Chief John Touhey said anyone who uses their chimney should have it cleaned regularly.

"Just since the beginning of the heating season this year, we have gone out on four or five chimney fires," he said. "People should have their chimneys cleaned and inspected annually."

"It's really common sense," said Framingham Fire Chief Gary Daugherty. "Have the thing cleaned out. The more you use it, the more you should clean it out."

Iarussi said that any work done on a chimney, whether construction, repair or cleaning, should be done by a licensed professional, and extra attention should be paid to ensuring there are no cracks, which could allow a fire to spread into a home.

Iarussi also said homeowners should make sure smoke and carbon monoxide detectors have working batteries and that ashes are always disposed of in a safe manner.

"A lot of people put ashes left over from a fire in paper bags or trash bags," he said. "Hard wood can burn for multiple days after it turns into ash."

Ashes should only be disposed of in a metal container, kept a safe distance away from a house, porch or garage, he said.

In addition to performing routine maintenance, homeowners should be mindful of what they burn in their fireplaces, as certain materials can accelerate the build-up of creosote, said Daugherty.

Creosote is a tar-like residue left on the inner walls of a chimney as a result of the condensation that occurs when hot smoke rises into a cool chimney. It can build up quickly when the wrong type of wood is burned.

"You need to use dry, hard wood instead of wet wood," said Daugherty.

Daugherty also advised against tossing that Christmas wrapping paper into the fireplace, since that also increases buildup.

Kendall Hatch can be reached at 508-626-4429 or khatch@cnc.com.