What is a chimney fire?
A chimney fire is the burning of soot or creosote within the flue system. Dirty chimneys cause chimney fires. Some chimney fires have obvious, dramatic indicators when they are occurring. Some people report hearing loud cracking and popping noises or a low rumbling sound like a freight train, as well as smelling or seeing dense smoke and/or flames shooting out of the top of the chimney. Surprisingly though, most chimney fires go undetected. Often the homeowner is not aware they have experienced a chimney fire. When chimney fires do not get enough oxygen, they burn slowly and are not as noticeable, however, temperatures can still reach over 2,000°F causing damage to the less visible chimney structure and nearby combustible parts of the house as much as the more visible parts.
Other signs you may have had a chimney fire.
Shards or flakes of creosote on the ground, around the roof, or in the firebox of your fireplace.
Pieces of creosote that look puffy or like a sponge or honeycomb.
Broken or cracked pieces of flue tile found in the cleanout area of your chimney.
Cracks in the exterior masonry of your chimney such as the bricks or blocks.
Discolored, disfigured, or damaged chimney cap (often looking multi-colored).
Strange smells around the chimney (similar to burnt plastic).
Why is it risky to use the flue after a chimney fire?
The most common damage caused by the high heat of a chimney fire is vertical cracks and/or missing mortar joints (gaps) in the terracotta tile liner of a masonry chimney or warped and buckled seams in a prefabricated (metal) chimney.
A ceramic tile liner insulates and protects areas beyond its perimeter from heat and flue exhaust gases that are the normal byproducts of combustion. When the flue is compromised this layer of protection is lost, which allows combustible materials near the flue to be vulnerable to heat and greatly increases the possibility of toxic flue gases entering the house. The same is true in the case of the warped/buckled seams in a prefabricated chimney.
What are the proper repairs after a chimney fire?
Once a terracotta tile lined flue is damaged by a fire, the most common repair is installing a stainless steel liner in the chimney. In most cases the tile liner damaged by the chimney fire must first be removed in order to install a stainless steel liner with the required insulation wrap. It is important to note that installing the chimney liner with insulation is required by the liner manufacturer and to meet current safety standards.
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How to handle a chimney fire insurance claim.
Similar to a lightning strike or other event that causes sudden damage to your home, chimney fire damage will likely be covered by your homeowners’ insurance.
Insurance companies may use a couple terms when referring to chimney fires. Common descriptions are “high heat events” or “single sudden occurrences.” It is important to note that most insurance policies do not cover normal “wear and tear” or deterioration of the chimney over time. Thus, we as your chimney inspector, need to determine if the damage found was due to a “single sudden occurrence” or deterioration over time.
One of the more common questions you might be asked when speaking to your insurance representative is “When was the date of loss?” The date of the loss refers to when the chimney fire occurred. If you are unsure when the chimney fire took place, we suggest referring to the date of our inspection as the “date of discovery.” It is also very helpful to reference a previous chimney service where no damage was found, thus narrowing down the potential timeframe for the “date of loss.”
To make the insurance process as smooth as possible we will document the damage caused to your chimney using written documentation and photographs that our technician gathered during the inspection. This is your Inspection Report. We will also provide a quote for repairing the chimney. If you decide to make a claim, these two documents will provide the information your insurance adjuster needs to process the claim.
We encourage you to use us as a resource during this process; please feel free to include us in all correspondence with your insurance agent. If your insurance carrier wishes to contact us directly, they may call our office at (802) 728-3900 or e-mail email@example.com.
Tip: How to avoid chimney fires.
Because a chimney fire is caused by creosote igniting inside of a chimney, there are many steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of a chimney fire:
- Have your chimney cleaned and inspected annually: Removing creosote deposits from inside the chimney greatly reduces the likelihood of a chimney fire.
- Make corrections to issues within your chimney system: Oftentimes, changes can be made to the chimney system to reduce the likelihood of a chimney fire such as making the stovepipe run as short and straight as possible, keeping the catalytic element in your stove clean and in good working condition, or keeping branches and leaves away from the top of the chimney.
- Upgrade your appliance: Wood stove manufacturers are constantly working to improve emissions and efficiency in their products. Upgrading your appliance can offer a cleaner burn and reduce creosote buildup in the flue.
- Burn dry wood: When burning firewood in wood stoves or fireplaces, choose well-seasoned wood that has been split for a minimum of six months to one year and stored in a covered and elevated location. Seasoned firewood should have a moisture content between 15%-25%. Moisture meters are very affordable and are available online. Never burn Christmas trees or treated wood in your fireplace or wood stove.
- Use a thermometer and proper burning techniques: Keeping your stove at the correct temperature is key to burning efficiently and reducing creosote buildup. An ideal flue temperature is 800 – 1,000°F. Please note that magnetic surface thermometers reflect only about 40% of the actual temperature inside the flue.
- Don’t overload your stove or fireplace with too much wood: Overloading your stove or fireplace with too much wood can lead to more creosote buildup.
By adhering to these tips you can greatly reduce the chance of a chimney fire.
Paul Bianco is the General Manager of Chimney Savers, a family owned and operated chimney cleaning and repair company servicing Vermont & New Hampshire since 1989. With 12 years of experience in the chimney business, Paul has extensive knowledge in all things chimney.