Keeping chimney clean key to avoiding costly fire


PITTSFIELD -- Following a pair of chimney fires over the weekend, including one that temporarily displaced a man, fire officials on Monday urged homeowners with wood-burning stoves and fireplaces to keep their chimneys clean.

In both cases, fire investigators said the fires started because a build-up of creosote, a by-product of burning wood, caught fire in the chimneys.

A fire early Saturday morning at 328 Onota St. caused an estimated $20,000 worth of damage and forced the owner to find alternate housing, according to Deputy Fire Chief Mark Cancilla. Late Sunday afternoon, a chimney fire at 7 Plymouth St. also forced a couple from their home, but they were able to return once firefighters cleared the smoke from the home.

"If you're going to use [wood stoves] all the time, you need to clean the chimney more than once a year," Cancilla said on Monday.

Chimneys should be professionally cleaned at the start of the heating season, and homeowners should keep them as creosote-free as possible, according to fire officials.

"Inspect your chimney every two weeks," said Peru Fire Chief Eric Autenrieth. "Look up, using a flashlight, and you should be able to see to the top of the chimney."

In addition, burn dry, seasoned hardwood to minimize creosote build-up, said Lt. Thomas Sammons, an inspector with the Pittsfield Fire Department.

Seasoned wood "burns quicker, but burns cleaner than wet, unseasoned firewood," Sammons said.

Avoid burning wood such as pine, according to Lee Fire Chief Alan Sparks.

"Pine has to burn very hot to prevent a [creosote] build-up," Sparks said.

According to the state Fire Marshal's office, 851 fires involving chimneys connected to fireplaces and wood-burning stoves accounted for 32 percent of all fires linked to heating systems last year and resulted in $2.2 million in damage. Sammons called that data "scary because those fires can be prevented."

Prevention also involves the regular removal of ashes from a fireplace or wood-burning stove and proper disposal.

The Department of Fire Services blamed a series of fires across the state in the past 10 days on improper ash disposal, said agency spokeswoman Jennifer Mieth.

"Instead of a metal container with a lid, people have put ashes in plastic containers inside the garage or a box under the porch," Mieth said. "People do not realize that a single ember can remain hot even when the ashes seem cool to the touch."

For additional safety tips this heating season, Mieth urged home and business owners to follow the state's "Keep Warm, Keep Safe" campaign at

To reach Dick Lindsay:,
or (413) 496-6233.

Hot topic ...

Most chimney fires occur due to a build-up of creosote, a tar-like by-product of burning wood. Clean your chimney flue at least once a year and burn only dry, well-seasoned hardwood to reduce creosote accumulation.

Damper should be open before lighting a fire in a fireplace or wood stove. Failure to do so can result in smoke and carbon monoxide within the house. Close the damper when fire has died out and the embers are cold.

Regularly clean stove and fireplace of ashes, removing them using a metal pail and storing them outside on the ground, away from the house.

Install carbon monoxide and smoke alarms on every level of your home. State law requires CO alarms in all homes with chimneys or wood stoves.

Source: Massachusetts Fire Marshal Office.

By the numbers ...

851 -- fires last year in state involving chimneys, fireplaces and wood stoves.

16 -- injuries resulting from such fires in 2011: 10 firefighters and six civilians.

$2.2 million -- cost of property losses due to chimney-related fires.


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