Safer Flames

Safer Flames

The difference between the fire that keeps you warm and the one that burns down your house could depend on how well you clean your chimney or woodstove.

"It happens every year, when people don't have their flue or chimney cleaned," says Captain Mike Kuntz of Applegate Rural Fire Protection District No. 9. "You should have them cleaned a minimum of once a year, and twice if they're used often."

Kuntz, who has been a firefighter for 19 years, explains that chimney fires are preceded by a buildup of creosote on the sidewalls.

Creosote is created by low-temperature combustion and accumulates even more rapidly by burning green wood full of pitch. For this reason, Kuntz recommends burning hotter fires for shorter periods of time with the flue open, as well as using dryer and more seasoned wood.

When ignited, creosote burns at a high temperature and can melt the protective layers that insulate the chimney or stovepipe from the rest of the house. The result is often an attic fire that is difficult for even firefighters to extinguish.

The failure to properly clean — including chimneys, grease and food buildup in ovens, and dryer lint traps — was the single biggest cause of structure fires in Oregon for each of the past five years, according to the Oregon State Fire Marshall's Annual Report. In 2007, poor cleaning led to 357 structure fires.

The risk of chimney fires is much greater in houses built before 1950, according to Joe Freeman, owner of Busy Bee Chimney Sweep of Medford.

Since 1950, building codes have required a terra cotta insulating liner at least 5/8-inches thick surrounding the chimney. This layer not only helps contain chimney fires, but can reduce the risk of water damage and freeze-thaw cracking in masonry.

"If you just moved to a new house, get your new home inspected by a licensed chimney sweep," Freeman advises. "Regular home inspectors are not certified to inspect chimneys. If your home is pre-1950, the inspection is mandatory."

The cleaning process consists of three parts: scraping the creosote off the sidewalls with a wire brush, vacuuming up the ash, and inspecting for damage.

One of the big mistakes do-it-yourselfers make, says Freeman, is they forget to clean the smoke shelf. The creosote ash that is dislodged during sweeping can accumulate on the shelf, concentrating that highly flammable material and inadvertently increasing the risk of fire.

And for older houses, Freeman says, "Buy a chimney cap and spark arrestor. Not only does this help keep the rain out that can crack the terra cotta (insulating) tile, this prevents birds from making a nest on the smoke shelf."

A bird's nest could be the tinder that ignites your house. Don't let your nest egg go up in smoke. A small investment in time and money toward cleaning and maintaining your chimney could save your house. And your life.

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Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at

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