Caldwell County sees recent rash of chimney fires

Feb. 03, 2014 @ 04:05 PM

In the past week, as frigid weather gripped Caldwell County, five fires that damaged or destroyed houses all started from the chimney -- and might have been easily prevented.

Chimney fires occur from the accumulation inside the chimney of creosote, a tar-like substance that includes unburned wood particles and is highly combustible. When there are cracks in a chimney, or when the creosote burns at high enough temperatures, materials surrounding the chimney can catch fire.

Having a chimney sweep regularly inspect and clean the chimney removes accumulated layers of creosote, Deputy Fire Marshal Kevin Brown said.

The Lenoir Fire Department encourages people to have their chimneys cleaned each year before the weather gets cold enough that they start to burn fires, Chief Ken Briscoe said. “This season, it’s proven itself why we do that.”

One possible reason there have been so many chimney fires recently is that when the weather gets colder than usual, people residents to put their fireplaces and wood stoves into high gear, or they begin using wood stoves and fireplaces to supplement central heating systems, Briscoe said.

Fighting chimney fires can be tricky because of the high heat, Briscoe said. Turning a fire hose on a chimney fire could make it worse because the cold water hitting the extremely hot chimney could cause the chimney’s lining to crack, allowing the fire to escape into the attic and ignite rafters, so instead many fire departments use a “chimney bomb,” a plastic bag filled with a fire-extinguishing agent that is dropped down the chimney.

The Catawba Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross -- which among other things helps fire victims in Alexander, Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties with finding a place to stay and getting clothes, groceries and even referrals for essentials like furniture and appliances -- said last winter that Caldwell County had by far the most house fires in the region, and that is the case again this winter, said Mike Townsend, disaster program specialist with the Catawba Valley Chapter.

“Right now, Caldwell County has the most incidents over the last several months in our territory,” Townsend said.