Nothing chases away the cold like a warm, inviting glow from your fireplace. You pull a favorite chair closer to the hearth and settle in. Suddenly, you realize something is very wrong. Flames begin shooting up into the flue. Debris sparks and rains down on the grate. You’re dealing with a chimney fire.
How do you put out a chimney fire? What should you do first?
As the city’s leading restoration professionals, we take care of fire-damaged homes all across Chicago, IL, and the suburbs. Based on our years of experience, we’ve put together these important need-to-know facts about chimney fires.
What Are the Signs of a Chimney Fire?
The chimney fire that damaged Rachel Ray’s home was fast-burning and dramatic. This type of fire produces large flames, thick smoke and intense heat. The sounds of a fast-burning chimney fire are similar to the roar of an airplane.
Early signs of a chimney fire aren’t as obvious.
Creosote smoldering inside the chimney becomes hot enough to cause damage, but a lack of oxygen or fuel prevents it from erupting into flames. As the process repeats over time, it creates a dangerous situation. These are five signs of a slow-burning fire inside your chimney.
- Creosote shards in the grate, on the roof or around your home’s exterior
- Cracked flue tiles or chunks of damaged tile that fall into the firebox
- Warped metal components, including the damper, smoke chamber and flue liner
- Heat-damage on the roof, especially around flashing near the chimney
- Smoke coming from cracks in the chimney’s exterior masonry
6 Life-Saving Steps to Put out a Chimney Fire
It’s possible to put out a chimney fire by yourself, but don’t take any chances. Call 911, report the fire immediately, and then follow these steps.
1. Get everyone out
As soon as you’re aware of a chimney fire, get all people and pets out of the home, and contact the fire department. Even if you manage to put the fire out on your own, calling the firefighters is a smart idea, as chimney fires can spread rapidly.
2. Put the flames in the firebox
Once you’ve secured the house and made sure the situation is safe, turn your attention to the fireplace itself. Start by closing primary or secondary openings in the fireplace or chimney, such as flues.
This will help deprive the fire of oxygen, and discourage it from spreading. Next, use an ABC extinguisher with the nozzle pointed at the fireplace grate. Spray short bursts into the firebox so that you don’t throw embers into the air. If you don’t have a fire extinguisher on hand, use sand, salt (any salt will work, including standard table salt and rock salt), or baking soda, which will deprive the flames of oxygen.
You can also use a fire suppressant product like Chimfex, if you have it on hand. Chimfex resembles a road flare that, once lit and tossed into a fire box, consumes all available oxygen and snuffs the fire out.
3. Hose down the chimney
When the fire is no longer burning in the grate, go outside and use a hose to wet the chimney. Use a fine mist or gentle spray to dampen what’s left of the fire without doing additional damage to the interior of the chimney.
4. Clear wood and ashes
Once the fire is out, use a fireplace shovel to transfer smoldering debris from the firebox to a metal bucket. Move it outside, and hose down the debris to make sure it’s completely extinguished.
5. Finish with a chimney extinguisher
Back inside, open the damper, and use an extinguishing agent specifically formulated for chimney fires. Follow the manufacturer’s directions, and toss the product into the fireplace. It quickly releases fire suppressants that rise up and put out the chimney fire.
6. Don’t let your guard down
Be prepared for a flare-up. Keep both the ABC extinguisher and additional suppressant products nearby. Firefighters arriving on the scene can confirm that the fire in your chimney is safely extinguished.
Important Safety Tips
- The Chimney Safety Institute of America is an excellent resource for chimney fire extinguisher products, as well as general information about fireplace and chimney safety.
- Never throw water on a flare-up in the grate or a fire in the chimney. The action can create a steam blast that blows back into the room and results in serious injuries.
- A chimney fire can spread very quickly, so always call 911. Make sure you have a home fire evacuation plan in place, and practice drills with the family several times a year.
What Causes a Chimney Fire?
In recent years, a chimney fire seriously damaged celebrity chef Rachael Ray’s two-story home in eastern New York State. Firefighters determined that the likely cause was creosote buildup inside the chimney.
Burning wood in a fireplace produces hydrocarbons, gases, carbon particles and water vapor. As the byproducts flow up through the chimney, they condense on its interior and form creosote. When the sticky material reaches extreme temperatures, it ignites and burns.
While many chimney flare-ups result from accumulated creosote, there are other problems that cause chimney fires.
- Debris inside the chimney, such as bird nests, twigs and leaves
- Excessive temperatures produced by large fireplace fires
- Sparks resulting from burning inappropriate materials
- Structural problems caused by previous chimney water damage
- Poor flue design that doesn’t adequately contain fireplace heat
How Common are Chimney Fires?
While chimney fires are a nightmare scenario for homeowners, they’re surprisingly common. According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), chimney fires cause more than more than 20,000 residential house fires annually. These residential fires can be devastating and often result in extensive loss of property or – worse – injury to people living in the house.
While chimney fires can be tragic, they’re also preventable. Fortunately, routine maintenance can help you avoid this outcome. According to the National Fire Protection Association, most chimney fires are caused by chimneys that are not cleaned properly.
Over time, creosote, debris, and chemicals build up in the chimney. In rural areas, blowing leaves and animal nesting materials can also block a chimney. The next time a homeowner starts a fire in the stove, these blockages rapidly become hazards. With that in mind, maintaining your chimney is a critical part of keeping your home, family, and property safe.
Will a Chimney Fire Put Itself Out?
It’s never a good idea to let a chimney fire burn out. It can grow into a fast-burning blaze in just a few minutes. Even flames from a minor chimney fire can leave behind extensive fire damage. These are a few examples.
- Damaged chimney components that can’t withstand a second chimney fire
- Damaged flue lining that allows carbon monoxide to enter the room
- Roof problems including shingle damage and attic leaks
- Structural damage behind surrounding walls and ceilings
- Fire and smoke damage and cleanup problems throughout your home.
How to Prevent Chimney Fires
Regular maintenance is one of the most effective ways to reduce chimney fire risks. Every chimney should be inspected and cleaned by a certified professional at least once a year. If you use the fireplace frequently during the winter, schedule additional service calls. Do your part to keep the chimney safe by following these guidelines.
- Minimize smoke and soot by using dry, seasoned wood.
- Burn smaller fires to reduce creosote buildup in the chimney.
- Maximize air supply by keeping the damper fully opened.
- Leave protective glass fireplace doors open during operation.
- Never burn paper, plastic, rubber or fabric in the fireplace.
- Consider upgrading your chimney’s liner or hiring a pro for the job.
Dealing With the Aftermath of a Chimney Fire in Chicago, IL, or the Suburbs? We Can Help!
As much as you enjoy the warmth of your home’s fireplace, it’s important to stay safe. Follow our tips so that you’ll be prepared for a chimney fire, just in case.
If the worst should happen, we’re here for you. We provide expert fire damage cleanup and restoration services across Chicago, IL, and the suburbs 24/7. You can count on ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba: 773-647-1985.