Nailing It Down: Prepare wood stoves and fireplaces for efficiency and safety

  • Fri Oct 14th, 2016 10:00pm
  • Life

Today is the last day of National Fire Prevention Week and, we think, a great time to talk about fire safety in heating your house!

Before we get any further, we’d like to remind you to check your smoke alarms and carbon dioxide detectors this weekend. Do they need new batteries? Do you have one in each bedroom and a CO detector on each floor of the home near the bedrooms? These save lives every day.


On Oct. 8 and Oct. 9 of 1871, the Great Chicago Fire killed more than 250 people and left 100,000 homeless as it burned more than 2,000 acres, gobbling some 17,400 structures in its path.

Some 40 years later the Fire Marshals Association of North America decided that the day was best remembered by keeping the public informed about the importance of fire prevention.

Most people are aware of the Chicago Fire with its accompanying legend of Catherine O’Leary’s cow starting the whole thing by kicking over a lamp in a barn. This was one of the major fires that changed the way firefighters and public officials thought about public safety.

Closer to home, you are likely aware of the devastating Seattle Fire in 1889 wiping out the entire business district. And, even closer to home, the City of Aberdeen had overwhelming fires in 1887, 1889 and again on Oct. 16, 1903.

The last Aberdeen fire was caused by someone cooking breakfast in a downtown hotel.

We’re so aware of flooding as an issue here, but thanks to new building codes and better firefighting equipment and training, fire isn’t usually the forefront of our minds. Still, it just takes a spark to get a fire going and we want to make sure you’re you are safely heating your house this winter.


While most fireplaces aren’t equipped to truly heat a home, we’re including them today because they have important maintenance needs. Also, sometimes they are used as alternative heat sources when the power goes out.

This is the time to examine your chimney. If you haven’t taken a peak at it yet (or hired someone else to) consider checking that off of your To Do list pronto.

For your fireplace, at the very least, stick your head inside to look up and make sure you can see sky. A bird’s nest or debris can make for a very smoky first fire of fall.

Chimney fires are very common. And by having your chimney cleaned regularly (every year or two depending on use) you can rest easy that yours won’t likely catch fire.

Why do chimney fires occur?

Creosote – a byproduct of combustion – builds up and cakes onto the side walls of the chimney. It can build up so it almost looks like coal deposits. This material is still highly combustible and if it has an ignition source, the creosote can burn, creating a chimney fire.

Sometimes, repeated little fires in the chimney over time can go unnoticed, but can slowly weaken the integrity of the mortar and even the nearby walls. Then one day, it just takes a little heat in the chimney to cause a fire.

In Hoquiam, the fire department wants to encourage people to take preventative measures by cleaning their chimneys. They offer an assortment of chimney brushes available to Hoquiam residents for loan at no charge.

Another thing that can prevent chimney fires is to remember to burn dry wood. Wet wood contributes to creosote buildup.


Over the years, we’ve seen or heard about many fires in our area caused by “mid-wall chimneys.”

If you own a newer home, you can skip to the next section. But for those of you who own or rent a home that was built many years ago, you may want to check that you don’t have a mid-wall chimney.

These chimneys, which are still frequently in use in some of the older housing stock in our area, are constructed within the interior of the home itself. This type of chimney is extended through the second story or attic, built up against the surrounding wooden materials instead of having an air space, as is now required. As you can imagine, it can be a recipe for disaster.

If you have one of these chimneys, see if there is at least a 1-inch air space between the chimney and any combustible materials around it.

These old chimneys might have been safe and appropriate when used as intended – for gas- or oil-type stoves. However, somewhere along the way, homeowners converted the oil stove to a wood-burning stove, which burn much hotter and therefore likely require upgrades to the existing chimney.


What should you do if there is a fire in your chimney?

If you feel it is safe to do so, just quickly damper down the stove and make sure the doors are closed to prevent more oxygen to feed the fire. You will be very smart to inspect the chimney before reuse by the fire department or a chimney sweeping company.

If it is clearly a large fire — evacuate the house and call 911.