fireplace

Since colder weather returned to the Ozarks in early November, four houses have been destroyed by blazes caused by wood-burning fireplaces within the boundaries of the two fire departments headquartered in Houston.

Two of those occurred inside the City of Houston FD’s zone and two within the area covered by Houston Rural. City Fire Chief Robbie Smith, who also works with the Rural department, said all four could likely have been prevented if the homes’ chimneys – or flues – had been properly maintained.

“That’s a large number to have in the immediate area,” Smith said. “It’s definitely an issue.”

Other structures have been lost elsewhere in Texas County this wood-burning season due to the same reason, including in Raymondville and Cabool.

The primary cause of flue fires is the buildup of unburned material, or creosote, inside the chimney. Smith said the best way to avoid the situation is to have your chimney cleaned annually by a certified, licensed and insured specialist.

“I recommend doing it every spring,” he said. “And I would never want to start a fire in a fireplace with a chimney that’s never been cleaned.”

Smith said it’s also a good idea to remove the cap from the top of your home’s chimney when wood-burning season begins.

robbie

ROBBIE SMITH

“That cap is mainly there to stop rainfall in spring and fall,” he said. “But during burning season, that micro-sized unburned material will go up the flue and hit that cap and be forced back down. Then it just builds up.”

Smith said removing the caps isn’t usually difficult.

“For the majority of them, it just takes a Phillips or flathead screwdriver,” he said. “If your chimney is round, there will typically be three screws, and if it’s rectangular there will be four.”

The interiors of many chimneys are lined with fire-resistant clay sections, or inserts. Smith said that over time, those sections can crack, separate or offset, or even break due to repeated exposure to heat and cold. That presents a dangerous possibility, Smith said.

“Flames can find their way through those small openings,” he said, “and they won’t always stop there.”

Clay-lined chimneys where the sections have cracked or separated are sometimes outfitted with a steel inner liner. Either way, Smith said, cleaning the inside of a chimney might be the difference between experiencing a tragic house fire or not.

“We rarely see older houses that have smoke detectors in attic spaces,” Smith said. “If the fire gets between those cracks and into the attic space, it’s often goes unnoticed until it’s too late.”

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Smith said a couple of signs of potential flue fire problems can be smoke entering the room when a chimney is almost completely blocked up with creosote, or a roaring sound caused by material burning inside the flue.

“If either of those things occur,” he said, “that’s when we need to be called.”

Smith said that if that roaring sound is heard, or if flames are seen emanating from the top of the chimney, he recommends closing the damper and any other object that will curb the flow of oxygen to the fire.

“Close anything that will allow it to gain access to air,” he said. “That will slow it down until we can get there.”

Smith said a licensed chimney-cleaning business in Pomona is the only one he knows of within a 60-mile radius of Houston. There are a few others in Springfield that have been known to travel to Texas County.

“I really want to stress that if you’re going to have this done, it should be done by someone who’s licensed and insured,” Smith said.

For more information, call the City of Houston Fire Department at 417-967-4777.

“I would never want to start a fire in a fireplace with a chimney that’s never been cleaned.”

CITY OF HOUSTON FIRE CHIEF ROBBIE SMITH

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