Written by Rachel Kirkpatrick
Monday, 25 January 2010 00:00
Occupants of two homes escaped injury after separate fire incidents were reported last week involving wood stoves.
Passersby called in the first fire report last Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 13, at approximately 12:30 after seeing black smoke pouring from a chimney on Hill Road. When fire department crews arrived they determined the roof had not caught fire, but found a hazardous situation involving a botched repair, according to Peter Bernstein, deputy fire marshal.
Firefighters observed a large crack on the exterior of the chimney, where the chimney attaches to the roof. Smoke was coming up from under the area of the crack. They also opened an interior wall and saw smoke inside there as well.
Mr. Bernstein said it appeared an attempt had been made to fill the crack with cement or a similar substance. The unit had not been inspected after this work.
Firefighters emptied all the contents from the stove and remained on scene to monitor the situation, because they wanted to make sure no piece of burning ember went through the crack, igniting the wall up in the bedroom, Mr. Bernstein said.
“It was a home fix that wasn’t right and fortunately somebody saw it,” Mr. Bernstein said. “If the embers had gotten through the crack, it could have caught the house on fire.”
Firefighters used a thermal imaging camera to check for extension — to make sure the fire hadn’t penetrated into hidden areas.
When crews looked in the basement, they found another issue. A plastic bucket top was being used to close an opening in the system where it is believed another device or furnace had been connected.
“If the bucket had ignited, it could have caught the whole basement on fire,” Mr. Bernstein said.
The second fire was called in later that day at approximately 6:14 p.m. from a home under renovation on Cross Highway.
Mr. Bernstein said a number of people were in the home at the time of the incident. Two wood stoves were installed, one on the first floor and one on the second floor, and the vent pipes for both were made from an improper material and not installed to building code.
“The roof literally caught on fire,” Mr. Bernstein said.
The vent pipes were made of single-wall galvanized metal, instead of a triple-wall stove pipe material.
“They lit a fire in the wood stove and because of the creosote build-up in the pipe, the pipe ignited from the hot fire,” Mr. Bernstein said. “The occupants said the pipe was glowing almost cherry red.”
Creosote builds up from oils in the wood. When you don’t burn proper wood, he said, you can have a serious creosote build-up.
“That’s how you get chimney fires,” he said.
Homeowners should always take care to burn “seasoned hardwoods,” like ash, birch or oak, not pine or evergreen, which Mr. Bernstein said contain so much sap that it is like “rocket fuel when it burns.”
In this case, the homeowners were also burning construction debris, which is never a good idea, he said, because you don’t know what is in the wood. In fact, no one should never burn pressure-treated wood, he said, whether inside or outside.
“The chemicals they treat it with give off a hydrogen cyanide gas when they burn, which is a deadly, poisonous gas,” he said.
The installation of wood stoves of any kind requires a building permit.
“All stoves, boilers, furnaces, wood stoves, inserts of any type require a building permit — period, the end — whether they be wood, coal, pellet stoves, gas logs, gas lighters, masonry fireplaces, cast iron, free-standing,” said Jay Hennessey, building official. “Every single one of them needs a permit.”
Those who would like to install one of these units is asked to come to the Building Department with the information on what is going to be installed and the manufacturer’s specifics, and the office will schedule an inspection.
This year, Mr. Hennessey said his office has not seen as many permit applications for alternative heat sources. Last year the number was higher because the cost of oil was so high, he said.
Although these types of heat sources may save money, they are still “cumbersome” and require dedication to not only collect and keep wood, but also to keep them clean and maintained.
“These things don’t last forever. They need to be cleaned and maintained and you need to make sure the right wood is being burned,” he said.
Among safety tips offered by the U.S. Fire Administration: Wood stoves should have adequate clearance (36 inches) from combustible surfaces and proper floor support and protection; have chimneys inspected annually; and wood stoves should be burned hot twice a day for 15 to 30 minutes to reduce the amount of creosote buildup.
For more information on wood stove safety, and for safety tips on other heating sources in the home, visit www.usfa.dhs.org.