Oak Bluffs chimney fire highlights need for winter safety

Oak Bluffs firefighters turned out Sunday for a chimney fire on Penacook Avenue. The cause was a buildup of creosote. — Photo by Rob Gatchell

Oak Bluffs firefighters answered a call for a chimney fire Sunday afternoon at the home of Patricia Irving on Pennacook Avenue.

“I was starting a fire in the woodstove: I threw in a match, closed the door, and all hell broke loose,” she told The Times. “I went outside to see if anything was coming out of the chimney. It wasn’t. When I went back in smoke filled up the house setting off the smoke alarms.”

Ms. Irving’s chimney was blocked by creosote buildup which caused the smoke to back up into the house.

“The creosote then caught fire,” Oak Bluffs fire chief John Rose told The Times in a telephone conversation Monday. “We emptied the hearth, took the chimney cap off and broke up debris and that extinguished the fire.”

Chimney fires can be extremely dangerous because they burn at such a high heat. “The high temperature can cause the chimney and or the liner to crack, igniting the house,” Chief Rose said.

He said this was a fairly typical chimney fire and was the first of the year for the Oak Bluffs fire department. “We expect to see more as the winter progresses and more people use their stoves,” he said.

Mr. Rose recommends that homeowners have their stoves and chimneys inspected once a year by a certified inspector.

“The inspector can tell you if you need to clean the chimney or make repairs,” he said. “If you only use your stove or fireplace once or twice a year you may not need to do anything, but have it inspected anyway.”

He said the best course of action in the case of a suspected chimney fire is to call the fire department. “We are trained to handle these fires. They can easily get out of hand.”

Unexpected fires

Chimney fires can occur even when the homeowner thinks the chimney hasn’t been used enough to cause a buildup, as in the case of Ms. Irving’s house. A retired hospital administrator and former aide to New York Mayor John Lindsay, she said the stove had been installed into her fireplace with a new liner about three or four years ago. She said she only uses the stove in really cold weather and it had worked fine the day before.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration’s website, heating fires are the second leading cause of all residential building fires, behind cooking fires, and over one quarter of residential building heating fires “result from improper maintenance of heating equipment, specifically the failure to clean the equipment.”

Chimney fires can burn explosively. They can be extremely loud and dramatic with flames or dense smoke shooting up from the top of the chimney. Many chimney fires remain contained and burn noiselessly and invisibly. These can still reach temperatures that will not only damage the structure of the chimney but can ignite nearby combustibles, causing a potentially lethal house fire, according to the website.

West Tisbury fire chief Manuel Estrella said his department has been lucky so far this winter. They have had no chimney or stove fires.

He said that people are taking better care of their stoves and chimneys and more people are using pellet stoves that burn hotter and cleaner than firewood stoves and can maintain a more even heat because they are self feeding, causing less creosote buildup.

Mr. Estrella recommends that wood burning stoves and flues be checked and cleaned once a year if dry hard wood is used as fuel and twice a year if green wood is used. Green wood burns slower at a lower temperature and leaves more tar deposits, he said.