January 31, 2013

Chimney fires a frightening, but not uncommon winter occurrence

Homeowners should consider a twice-per-season cleaning, say firefighters

By Ben McCanna bmccanna@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Fire departments in Franklin, Kennebec and Somerset counties have responded to more than 40 chimney fires this month. It might sound like a startlingly high number of fires, but it isn't, officials said.

click image to enlarge

A Winslow firefighter works from a ladder to extinguish a chimney fire at a home on Cushman Road on Tuesday.

Staff photo by David Leaming

"As far as I know, it's no more than average," said David LaFountain, fire chief for Waterville and Winslow.

Earlier this week, the Winslow Fire Department fought two chimney fires. Both cases involved homeowners who are experienced wood stove users, but chimney fires still can spring up despite experience and annual cleanings, LaFountain said.

Homeowners who receive 90 percent or more of their heat from wood should consider having their chimney cleaned twice a year or more; particularly during cold winters when homeowners are burning more fuel, LaFountain said. Also, homeowners should avoid burning unseasoned or so-called green wood, which creates more creosote -- the flammable material that accumulates within chimneys and stovepipes.

Chimney fires aren't unique to Maine's coldest months, LaFountain added. They also happen in spring during wild temperature swings between daytime highs and nighttime lows. The relatively cooler burning stove fires during the day can cause an accumulation of creosote that ignites at night when wood fires are stoked to burn hotter.

Fire departments use two common methods to extinguish chimney fires. In Winslow, for instance, firefighters drop into chimneys zipper-sealed sandwich bags that are filled with fire-suppression chemicals. When the fire melts away the plastic, the chemical is released. In Waterville, firefighters extinguish chimney fires with a special hose nozzle that converts water into vapor, LaFountain said.

On Monday night, three fire companies responded to a stubborn chimney fire on Taylor Road, Winslow, that eventually spread into the walls. Firefighters were able to save the structure and return it to the owners, "but it's quite a mess to clean up," LaFountain said.

On Tuesday morning, the Fire Department was out again, this time battling a chimney fire on Cushman Road in Winslow which was contained before it spread. The homeowners routinely cleaned their chimney and stove every year, but they had been burning more wood than usual during the recent cold snap, LaFountain said.

The Winslow Fire Department provides links to certified chimney inspectors and chimney cleaners on its website, www.winslow-me.gov/departments/fire.

Ben McCanna -- 861-9239

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