Chimney Fire: Wood Stove & Fireplace Safety
Have you ever seen a Chimney Fire or Flue Fire?
Guest article, by ‘NRP’
I watched as my neighbor in CA burned his home down, the Flue Pipe glowing bright red above the roof line, the flames shooting out the pipe like a Blow Torch and the home in ashes within 20 minutes. Thankfully nobody was hurt, but a total loss.
PS; The Fire Department did show up, they stood there and watched with the rest of us.
Chimney Fire Statistics
Here are a few fire statistics:
In 2016, there were 1,342,000 fires reported in the United States.
These fires caused 3,390 civilian deaths, 14,650 civilian injuries, and $10.6 billion in property damage.
475,500 were structure fires, causing 2,950 civilian deaths, 12,775 civilian injuries, and $7.9 billion in property damage.
One home structure fire was reported every 90 seconds.
One civilian fire injury was reported every 34 minutes.
One civilian fire death occurred every 2 hours and 35 minutes.
Of these ‘Structure’ fires, according to the latest statistics available, there are over 25,000 Chimney Fires per year in the US
What causes a chimney fire?
Creosote build-up is the main cause of chimney fires.
The creosote comes from particles/wood that were not fully burned during the fire (aka Smoke) and when the temperatures in the chimney lowered, they attached to the chimney walls forming the creosote.
The Best Ways to Prevent a Chimney Fire
Only burn seasoned or dried out wood.
Wood that is completely dry will sound hollow when hit against another piece of wood. It will be dark in color and may have cracks in the ends. It takes about 6 months for wood to season and be ready to burn.
Clean or have someone clean-clean-clean the Flue often, Inspect the Flue for cracks and airtightness. Have this professionally done, it’s cheap insurance.
What to do if you have a Chimney Fire
Get everyone out of the house because fire can flash right through the house with incredible speed.
Then call the fire department from a safe distance.
My advice, do NOT try to put out the fire and do not hesitate leave immediately.
Afterwards, if your house is still standing, call the Insurance Company, and call a chimney service professional to clean and inspect the chimney as well as assess the damage. Do NOT start another fire.
Things to remember:
The ignition temperature of creosote is generally considered to be 451 degrees, the same ignition point as paper.
As little as 1/8″ to 1/4″ is needed to cause a significant creosote chimney fire.
When ignited, creosote can burn at temperatures easily exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Steel often melts at around 1370 degrees C (2500°F). The minimum temperature needed to ignite wood is 180 degrees C (356°F), so a Flue at 2000 degree can ignite wood within a very close proximity, hence instant House Fire.
Again do not die trying to save Stuff.
If you ignore the sensible/smart thing to do, read up on the net and “try” to put a Chimney Fire Out, but remember the Stats above.
Me? I’ll shut the Dampeners, the Air Intake, grab Blue, and get the heck out of the house.
Let-er Burn-Baby-Burn and live to see another day.
Chimney Brush (4″) | (6″) | (8″) | (10″)
Creosote Remover Chimney Treatment
[ Read: Chimney Sweeping – Clean Your Own Chimney ]
Since the flue is surrounded by brick how does a chimney fire set the house on fire?
Most attics are very dry. Radiant heat can get hot enough to reach the auto-ignition point to burn materials close enough to the chimney. Think about what you got up there that may easily burn and if possible, move those things to the opposite end of the attic.
That is a very good question.
I would have to state that the two homes pictured above and many of other thousands of homes that burn because of a Chimney Fire are asking the same question.
There is a LOT of information on this subject on the ‘Net’ and how to “put one out”.
One might take a few minutes to do a search on Chimney Fires and go to ‘Images’ take a look around at the number of houses totally burned to the ground because the fire got past the “Brick”. Enclosure.
As a side note;
“Firebricks are blocks of refractory ceramic materials used to line fireplaces, fire boxes and furnaces. They are different from regular masonry bricks because of their ability to withstand temperatures up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit”
“Regular, or masonry, bricks, on the other hand, are more porous. Ordinary bricks begin to decompose at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Please note, both type of brick stability (resistance) are well below the burning temperatures of Creosote.
NRP… another thing to note about furnace bricks is the dust is highly hazardous. Furnace bricks are usually composed of a blend of silicon carbide, aluminum oxide and some have zirconium compounds. Varying the blend ratio will give different temperature thresholds.
Anyone who will be cutting these bricks themselves should wear a N95 mask (P100 would be better) and full length clothing to protect themselves. Keep others away who are not wearing protection for their own good.
Great article NRP. Even if the chimney is lined with brick or firebrick, generally there is a mortar joint and not always refractory mortar. These joints can weather out in time and leave a gap to the wooden supports around the chimney. I would guess that a chimney fire could cross through a failed mortar joint causing the house to ignite. When we renovated our farm house, I looked down that double flue brick chimney and decided to go with a couple multi-walled stainless steel liners. Cleaned them out two weeks ago as with every year. Burn dry wood only!
NRP, Good article, growing up, my father built our house and he used “water struck” bricks for the fireplace and chimney. The mason who built the chimney could only do more then five layers of brick a day because the bricks where so hard, they would not absorb the water from the cement that was applied in the joints. I have a fireplace (old style-all brick) in my house now but, I installed a fire place insert because they give more heat and they are easier to control the fire.
Wondering when you installed the ‘insert’ did you install the Stainless Flue Pipe also or just vented into the existing brick flue?
Installed insert in 2003, just put it in the fireplace and the flue lined up with the existing flue.
The insert is 398 lbs. I had to use an engine hoist to bring it into the house and set it on the hearth, then man handle it into the fireplace. It has firebrick inside and with the blower going it will put out 72,000 BTUs. When I have a fire going in it and I need to add wood I have to put on welders gloves to add wood to the fire it is that hot.
Former chimney sweep business owner here. Also sold and installed wood stoves and pellet stoves. A chimney fire is very dangerous and can catch the house on fire because as it’s burning it will shoot up molten creosote fireballs out of the chimney onto the roof. It can also cause the joints of the chimney pipe or flue to crack and spread the fire in attics, etc. Don’t use the so-called cleaning logs and do not use duraflame logs. Also, A lot of new home construction have what are called pre-fab fireplaces or zero clearance fireplace is. These are only decorative appliances and are not supposed to be used for heating a home.
Thank you for the input.
PS; not to worry about the spelling I cant even spell NRP at times hehehe
Not all flues are surrounded by brick. Wood stoves generally have tripple walled pipe. This works fine for normal heat but not for a chimney fire.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU HAVE A CHIMNEY FIRE?
Soak large towels in water and put them on/in the fire right away! The fire is out in no time.
I don’t know how it works, but flatten tin/beer cans and put them in the fire and over time they will be burned up – they prevent a build up of soot.
Just poor some water in the wood stove and the steam will put the chimney fire out. I have seen this work many times. I keep my chimney clean and use different products that help keep the creosote.to a minimum.
Water when converted to steam increases in volume by 1,700 times. Water in a hot stove can be an explosive situation and water on hot bricks or cast iron can also be very damaging. Just my experience but you may want to consult a firefighting professional about this chimney fire control method.
You a 100% correct about that. Plus water will cause the fire brick or flue liner to crack and next fire will be the one that willget you. Spent 27 years in Fire service seen just about everything but not all. Very good article
It still amazes me that when a house has a smoldering fire inside but it has not broken out yet, you can stick your fog nozzle in a crack in the door or window, spray for a minute, then shut it closed again, and witness the steam filling the house. That is when luck is on your side and the fire has not flashed over yet to engulf the whole house.
hermit us. You are removing 1 of the 3 elements that generates a fire. It take 3 heat, fuel, oxygen. You just remove the heat with a fog nozzle most of the time.. A super hot fire can evaporate the water almost instantly. Big fire equals big water. LOL Really enjoy following this web site. GREAT people here and lot of info. Thank ya’ll much
Retired Fire Man
Thank you for the comment, I totally agree about the “bucket of water”
And yessssss hermit us, I agree with
u tooooooo HAHAHA. Another first??
I have seen it work many times where just a cup of water put the chimney fire out. Bricks in a stove are easily replaced. It was a fire chief I have known most of my life who gave me the idea and it does work very well. Putting a raging chimney fire out would be my first priority and my damaged bricks would not be a problem for me. I check my chimney liner every year with a surefire flash light and do any needed grouting or repairs. I also routinely check my other wood stove which uses stove pipe.
The old timers tell me rock salt on the coals a couple of times a month will get rid of the build up
Good morning, All
Good article NRP and timely too….
We just had our chimney and wood stove serviced a couple weeks ago…
Couple of tips from our friend who owns his own fireplace/chimney/wood stove business
when you are seasoning wood outside if you use a tarp, just cover the top, do not try to cover the sides of the wood pile because it will collect moisture and not allow for proper drying
if you have a wood stove, when you have a fire in it, keep the temp in the recommended zone, too low temp also produces creosote, too hot fire hazard…
Also last tip he gave us, one we need to work on, is split the wood in summer, so it has time to dry out, we keep a decent part of our wood in rounds, but the sooner you can split them the better they can dry out all around….
Who here has started their wood stove? We haven’t yet, October has average 15 degrees above normal here this year…
May your fireplaces, wood/pellet stoves, and homes be safe this winter :)
I fired up both Wood Stoves about a week or two ago been getting cold here and I HATE buying Propane, after cleaning and replacing all the brick in one and two broken brick in the other. I did a through ‘scrub’ on the flue pipe, just straight runs no bends, Made sure the Spark Arrestor/Screen on the Cap was cleaned and managed to NOT fall off the roof… LOLOL.
I usually do a quick fire in the main Great-Room at 9:00 to take the coming chill off the night, and stoke it once during the night. Blue has relocated from the Bedroom to 5-10 feet in front of the Stove… HAHAHA Dang Trader.
I’ll echo Shepherdess’s advice: Dry wood and burn hot enough to avoid creosote build-up. We have a stove thermometer and try to keep it over 300, under 450. You get the most creosote when you try to choke down freshly inserted logs. They have more moisture in them to bake off. We burn hotter while the wood is fresh in the fire. Choking down a fire before bedtime that is mostly char and coals has no creosote left.
We had our chimney cleaned a few years back (metal multi-wall) and the guy said there was no creosote build-up to speak of. This, after 8 years of burning.
We were going to work one winter day in Alaska and noticed some small flames coming from our chimney. My husband rushed in and closed the damper and it put the fire out. We were lucky. We keep our chimney real clean now.
I’ve experienced a chimney fire, albeit a little different from those with stone/brick fireplaces or flues. Mine was with a cast iron wood heater of the type used for years in homesteads and hunting cabins. The flue pipe came up from the top of the heater, elbowed thru the wall, then elbowed back up past the roof top. I was lucky that I was home when it happened. My first warning was a sound similar to a jet engine winding up, increasing in intensity very rapidly, then the wall the flue pipe was attached to with stand off mounts began to vibrate violently. Even though I had never experienced this before, I instinctively knew I needed to cut off the air supply, so I closed the damper above the stove, ran outside and saw the flue glowing orange and flame shooting out the top like a blow torch and flaming drops of burning creosote dripping to the ground from the seams, igniting the grass. Luckily, I had a water hose hooked up to faucet close enough to start hosing down the flue. I was able to bring down the temperature to a point the fire was extinguished.
Most newer homes don’t have real brick/stone fireplaces. They have inserts with metal flue pipes surrounded by a wood framed chimney. These are subject to the same type fire I experienced, but since they are enclosed, would be impossible to fight the way I did.
A chimney fire creates a cyclonic effect similar to that of a jet engine, increasing temperatures exponentially, much the same as a blow torch, to a point it will easily melt steel.
I have no doubt the reason for my fire was the wood I had burned for years, and have heard others mention. That is “whatever is available”. My cabin was in NE Texas where the majority of trees were elm, locust, hackberry and bois d’arc (bois d’arc is extremely hard and tough, but very high sap content). These burn but are smoky and leave a lot of soot. Those who burn the “soft woods” out of ease of finding it, keep your chimneys clean.
This advice is not just for wood burning stoves but if you have a pellet stove, have a chimney sweep come clean the pipe, and check the cap each year before you use it. Pellets also put out creosote.
There are different levels of pellet quality that one can purchase without knowing it. Check the bag to see if it shows the composition of the materials used in producing the pellets, or go on line for product reviews before purchasing. The material is just pressed sawdust into a pellet used for burning in your stove, maybe I should say it was. I am not sure if they still use the same process, since we no longer have such an item in our home.
Antique Collector, I was just going to ask this question about pellet stoves, we’re still new to how to use the one that came with the house we bought earlier this year. My husband pulled it all apart and cleaned the stove really well last week, but I don’t think he did anything with sweeping the chimney. I’ll be asking him tonight!
Good and timely article NRP
Reminds me to go brush out moms chimneys and swab ours out too
I cannot get Mr. to call a chimney sweep and I do not know if those cleaning logs work. He burns more crap in our fireplace other than wood. So stubborn about SO many issues. I can only hope at this point.
Mrs. USMCBG, I am a 65 years old lady and I clean my chimney myself. I use a 16 foot long brush with a hard plastic bristle for stainless steel piping. I could show Mr USMCBG how it is done just to agitate him into calling a chimney sweep, or you can call a sweep yourself.
Another danger is a clothes dryer fire. 2,900 home clothes dryer fires are reported each year and cause an estimated 5 deaths, 100 injuries, and $35 million in property loss.Your dryer vent going outside must be cleaned regularly when lint builds up to clog it and causes a fire.
Excellent call on the Dryer Vent….
One more to think about for everyone, the Kitchen Cook Stove Vent/Hood, most now days are “Blow it back in your face” BUT a lot of the older homes have “Vented to the Outside”. A grease fire in the Hood is NOT good mojo.
NRP, I had a dog named RED. Red Heeler. Miss him he was a good dog.
“I cannot get Mr. to call a chimney sweep”
Simple solution, Call him yourself and when the Sweep shows up, have him take a few pictures of the inside of the Flue and show them to the MR.
Re; Blue, his not only my “dog” but my best friend and companion…. My Child I guess you could say :-) :-)
Our family cabin had a chimney fire because my uncle who was in charge of the cabin did not clean the flu and only found out too late when I saw the flames as I gathered more wood outside.
My first instinct was to get everyone out, then I took a box of baking powder, threw it on the burning logs to smother it, and shut off all the the air to fuel the fire in the box being a fireplace insert then the fire was put out. The chimney flames went out as we watched outside. That is what saved the cabin.
Although I can agree on seasoned wood, it must be split in half and/or quartered to dry for up to 6 months. depending on the thickness of the wood. The less thick the wood, the less time to dry if stacked properly.
Good article NRP
I wish to bring another risk to the reader’s attention. Even if you do not have a chimney fire, the repeated heating of the flue in proximity to wood framing will result in a potential fire hazard called pyrolysis. The chemical composition of wood changes to the point where the temperature for combustion is lowered to as little as 200 degrees, at which time it will catch fire even if not exposed to direct flame. So, even if your metal chimney is intact but the necessary clearance has been ignored, up goes your building. I recommend as much distance as you can from the flue to wood and there are also safety shields that are available to add that extra measure of safety when burning wood in your house.
As to the question “where is hermit us”. Briefly, when it appears that a provocateur or antagonist is trolling the discussion, it is best to just remove one self from the equation. As tempers flair and a riot seems possible, us hermits avoid the trouble and wait for tempers to cool. I have found that avoidance is always smarter than confrontation – until it is not. Sorry to be off topic – perhaps more comments in the open forum.
I agree with the hazards on the proximity of the house structure to the Chimney or Flue….
While we are on Flues and such, If you have a Furnace in your home, Have it serviced also, The “firebox” can crack and emit C.O. into the house and kill you. It’s a very simple test that any HVAC tech. can do.
Carbon Monoxide Detector
PS; good to have ya back ya old-fart :-) Always makes my day to see good people here. If one shows up I’ll let ya know HAHAHAHA
Regarding furnace firebox… In 1984, my husband and I were renting a house. It was the first winter we lived there. My precious smart beautiful doggy woke me up in the middle of the night. When I sat up to ask her what was wrong, I sat up into black soot. I punched my husband awake and we crawled outside with our doggy. She definitely saved our lives. The fire department determined it was a crack in the firebox. The fuel to the furnace and the furnace was turned off, we got our deposit back and moved as soon as we could! I love that dog! She saved our lives! Beach’n
Dog, man’s AND woman’s best friend, and savior at times. 😁
Good see you, glad you didn’t stay away too long!
Thanks. Had to go before I did an NRP rant. I may give an opinion in the open forum on spotting and triggering trolls to the point that they expose themselves. Many here picked up on the comment direction including Ken.
Informative article, NRP. Thanks for doing the look-ups and the maff for us. ;-)
I have a personal chimney sweep living with me, so we have a very clean flue to start each cold season. We also shut completely down mid-Winter and clean the flue again. Just to be sure.
We don’t have a creosote buildup and it’s probably because of the catalytic converter that’s on the woodstove. We also use an add-on thermometer that keeps us informed of the stove’s temperature. It’s marked red in the danger zone because wood stoves shouldn’t go over 400-degrees F.
We burn oak, and some poplar when we find a dead one around here. There may be a blight going on because we’ve had an increase of dead poplar trees in the past couple of years — need to check that. Oak makes for a great over-night burn and in the early morning after we’ve stoked the embers, we either use a faster burning wood to get the fire going back up again, or we use smaller cuts of oak.
@hermit us, glad to see you back. Someone has to keep NRP on his toes.
A question on the catalytic converter, it it one of those ‘Box’ type that’s adding in the Flue?
If so you must have to remove it to completely clean the Flue?
I have often though of adding one, the type with a fan would suck a LOT more heat from the “smoke”….
@NRP No, we only have the damper ‘plate’ in the pipe area, nothing else. The converter is within the wood stove itself. Not sure if all woodstoves can accept them, but worth looking into.
We also have a small stove fan for added circulation. It’s located high, just below the upper level’s floor register so that we can move a bit more of the rising heat. There are also ceiling fans downstairs to circulate the warming air.
Sounds like you have almost the same setup as I do, both of my Stoves have a “re-burner” shelf. that setup really sucks the BTU’s from the burn.
I also have circulating fan siting on the floor 3-4 feet from the stove, it really helps.
NRP looking for “good people” – depends where you live – that might be considered an oxymoron.
He laughed when I told him there are actually some normal people in Idaho.
Stay fire safe, have non-combustible roofing, and please clean your gutters – the usual place for sparks to land and set your house ablaze.
I had a chimney fire in a fireplace at a weekend cabin. The chimney was rock, so it caught a lot of creosote. My mistake was burning some wrapping paper, the flames reached up past the damper igniting the creosote.
The noise is indeed like a jet engine. When I ran outside I saw the chimney shooting molten fireballs like a Roman Candle. I closed the damper, but it continued. I ran to the bedroom and grabbed a blanket off the bed, then soaked it in the tub quickly. I held the blanket in front of the fireplace, choking off the air flow. After a couple minutes the noise abated, so I took the blanket away. It started again. I stood there holding the blanket for another 5 minutes.
It was pure luck it had been raining all day, hence the composite roof and surrounding areas were wet and didn’t catch fire.
After that experience I had the rock chimney cleaned, and installed a stainless steel chimney pipe.
Good reason to have a metal roof! ;)
Thanks, NRP – nice article, and sobering statistics!
The day we closed escrow on the BOL (that very day, while sellers were still walking through the house with us) we had the local chimney sweep folks to the house to check things out for us. Sellers had not used the fireplace in several years, so we had a complete cleaning and inspection.
Even if we had not known to do so, the company we hired to do our pre-sale home inspection put that right at the top of the inspection report – “RECOMMEND HAVING A PROFESSIONAL CHIMNEY SERVICE CLEAN & INSPECT, AND MAKE ANY RECOMMENDED REPAIRS BEFORE USING THE FIREPLACE”. We also had them check out the piping for the wood-burning heater just to be safe. At least we know that once the weather starts getting really cold up there we are safe to use either option.
There are a number of chimney fire extinguishers for sale out there that are tossed into the fire directly. Rutland is one brand. Don’t know how well they work, but could be another line of defence. Cleaning your flue every year is your best bet. Also, everyone needs a Carbon Monoxide detector if you have any fuel burning appliances in the house, and a combustible gas detector if you burn propane or natural gas. Dogs will sometimes warn you, but best to have a detector.
NRP- I often call my old pup “Son” and get laughed at, until I explain he is the only one of my kids that still listens to me!
Well Old-Blue is one hell of a good friend. I respect his opinion 10000% more tjan most people I know…. about equal with hermit us, LOLOL
Excellent advice on tje CO monitors, thanks for chiming in