GIMME SHELTER- Holy smoke! How to prevent chimney fires

James Fisher
Owner, Chimney Restorations, LLC

PHOTO BY Laura Burns

Q: I have an older house that we heat with a wood stove, and I'm worried about a fire starting in the chimney. How can I prevent my house from going up in smoke, and what should I do if I suspect a fire has already started in the chimney?

A: One time I had a guy try to clean his own chimney, and he used a bigger brush than he needed. When I got there, I couldn't get it out. He eventually managed to get the brush out, but he ended up having to re-line the chimney.

We've all heard people describe the scary experience of having a chimney fire. Chimney maintenance should be taken very seriously, and is generally best left to trained professionals.

"It was roaring like a freight train," many say. In fact, a chimney fire does sound like a freight train and is a pretty scary occurrence. 

Yearly inspections, regular maintenance, and frequent cleanings can help prevent a fire, but if you do hear a sound like a train barreling up the chimney, the best thing to do is call the local fire department and try to extinguish the fire in the fireplace or wood stove immediately. 

There's always a chance of burning your house down if you don't clean your chimney regularly.  Buildup in the pipe or on flue tile inside the chimney can ignite down in the firebox and quickly spread up the chimney. 

Most of the fires I hear about happen when people bank up their stoves at night and put in more wood than they should because they want hot coals to be there in the morning. The creosote– resin from the green wood– swells up like a marshmallow and closes up the throat of the flue. 

Besides regular cleaning and inspections, there are also several preventive measures. One important step is to keep water out of the chimney. People can waterproof the chimney with a seal made of sand and clay that they spread on the chimney crown. The coating lasts from 10-15 years and is flexible so it shrinks and swells with cold weather. You could also put a cap over the top of the chimney to keep the water from washing the joints out inside the chimney.

Even though chimney inspections and cleanings have gotten more expensive in recent years due to increased fuel prices– chimney maintenance people aren't so willing to come for gratis estimates any more– I would still highly recommend them. The safety of your home is worth the cost of the maintenance.