Fireplace season: How to keep yours safe (hint: book chimney cleanings now in the suburbs)
The first chill of autumn is the signal for many to stoke their fireplaces to ward off the cold. But the annual practice can lead to disaster for the unprepared.
Built-up residue on the lining of chimneys can ignite and spread flames to the walls and upper floors of a home, leading to substantial damage or injuries.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, heating equipment caused 14% of the estimated annual average 48,350 home structure fires from 2014 to 2018. Of that 14%, nearly a third involved fireplaces or chimneys, according to the agency.
Earlier this month in Fox Lake, a fire that began in the fireplace caused $25,000 to $50,000 damage and left a home uninhabitable.
"Once the fire got outside the fire box it ran up the whole chimney chase to the second story," said Ed Lescher, deputy chief of the Fox Lake Fire Protection District.
Firefighters and professionals who service chimneys say the culprit in many chimney fires is a buildup of the by-products of combustion -- including water vapor, unburned wood particles and more -- called creosote.
As the by-products flow into the relatively cooler chimney, condensation occurs and the residue sticks to the inner walls. Creosote can be crusty and flaky, tar-like and sticky, or shiny and hardened, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.
All forms are highly combustible, and restricted air supply and unseasoned wood encourage creosote buildup, according to the agency.
"It's a wood burning appliance connected to a chimney. An annual inspection is super important," said Michael Boudart, president of Lindemann Chimney, Heating & Cooling in Lake Bluff.
This is the busiest time of the year, and even with 55 trucks on the road, there is a two-week wait to schedule, Boudart said. The most common appointment is for cleaning and inspections.
"(Customers) have smoke where they don't want it, a smell where they don't want it, an animal where they don't want it," Boudart said.
Those calling for repairs probably have found pieces of masonry in the firebox or other evidence of a problem, he said. But unlike a furnace issue, people are less inclined to take immediate action when it comes to their fireplaces.
"People have less sense of urgency getting repairs to a fireplace housing a 2,000-degree bonfire in their living room," he said. "The system is not designed to have a raging inferno 10 or 15 feet up the flue."
While not every chimney fire results in a structure fire, the intense heat can fracture tiles and lead to problems later.
Indications of a chimney fire may involve a loud cracking or popping noise, a lot of dense smoke, or an intense, hot smell, according to the Chimney Safety Institute of America.
Pam Martinez, co-owner of the third-generation family-owned Leonard & Sons Building Services in Algonquin, said throughly sweeping the flue and checking the integrity of the liner for cracks or open joints is key.
"Even if it's masonry, if there are breaches, over time that creosote will migrate between and buildup on the outside of the liner," she said. "You build a fire that's a little too big and all the creosote will ignite."
Masonry is better at withstanding heat, said Libertyville Fire Chief Rich Carani. Prefabricated chimney fires are usually more destructive, causing attic fires or fires in the chimney surround.
"If the chimney surround was not built correctly or the pipe separates for some reason, you can have a problem," he said.
Libertyville has responded to 15 chimney fires since 2017, Carani said. Of those, seven were significant, spreading to the residential structure and needing to be extinguished.
Martinez said burning clean, dry wood is the best bet to limiting creosote buildup and add to the longevity of the fireplace.
Boudart and Martinez suggested customers call for cleaning and inspections in the spring after the burning season when customers can be serviced more quickly.
Tips for fireplace usersWith freezing temperatures and a chance for flurries in the forecast, homeowners over the weekend might be lighting their fireplaces for the first time since last winter. Here are some tips for keeping them safe and avoiding disaster:
• Open the chimney damper all the way.
• Don't restrict the air supply by closing the glass doors.
• Place fire starter or kindling under the grate and two or three dry logs on the fire.
• Make sure the smoke rises in the chimney flue.
• If using a natural gas log starter, leave it on only to start the fire, then turn off the gas.
• Do not use flammable liquids or an excessive amount of paper to start a fire.
• When using a manufactured log, burn only one log at a time and do not add regular wood. Manufactured logs burn as hot as eight pieces of normal wood.
• Burn seasoned wood. Burning wet, unseasoned wood will result in more creosote build up and increase the chance of fire.
• Don't overload the fire box.
• Keep a glass or metal screen in front of the fireplace. Close the screen to keep embers from combustibles.
• Put the fire out before you go to sleep or leave your home.
• Never close a damper with hot ashes in the fireplace.
• Put the ashes in a metal container with a lid. Keep it outside at least three feet from your house.
Sources: Libertyville fire department; U.S. Fire Administration.