One Eye up the Chimney

A customer asked us the other day what fire extinguisher he could use to extinguish a chimney fire – an unusual enquiry when you think about it. I figured either he had just experienced a chimney fire and was closing the stable door after the horse had bolted or he had a premonition of impending disaster.

It has to be said that most chimney fires are wholly preventable. The problem is that most householders just forget about the chimney until a problem arises. If you use your fire often then an annual sweep is essential. If you regularly burn wood then a sweep at least twice a year is recommended.

The products of combustion such as soot and resins will stick to the sides of the chimney flue eventually blocking it completely. If the stack is used infrequently then there could be other obstructions such as birds nest. Then you have a really dangerous situation as the fumes from combustion including the deadly carbon monoxide will back up and fill the room.

Fires within chimneys are pretty difficult to put out with a fire extinguisher. You could I suppose get a ladder and go to the top of the stack and discharge a water or foam extinguisher down the chimney. I would strongly advise against it. For one thing you will be intrinsically unsafe at that height and you will have to contend with billowing smoke, very hot fumes and the weight of the extinguisher. You would need a larger unit to stand a chance of putting the fire out.

If the fire is severe the best advice is to call the Fire Service but in the mean time you can put the fire in the grate out. You can do this by splashing (not dowsing) water onto the fire or use a foam extinguisher. These have the advantage of a lower discharge pressure so you won’t blast the embers all over the place and set fire to your living room. Close off as much air ventilation to the fire as possible to choke down the flow of air up the flue. Without fuel, air and added heat the fire if enclosed should burn itself out. Check the stack in every room it passes through, including the loft, for signs of smoke or fire coming through walls or brickwork.

Be warned the Fire Service will make a mess if they have to hose the chimney stack but if the fire is severe you have no choice as the heat generated could cause structural damage to the chimney that will be expensive to repair.

This is a case of prevention being far better than the cure so here are a few tips:

How often should I clean my chimney?
The Fire Service recommends the following maintenance frequencies:

Type of Appliance Chimney       Sweeping Frequency
Solid Fuel Appliances                          Sweep once a year for smokeless fuel and twice a year for coal
Wood Burning Appliances                 Sweep every three months when in regular use
Gas Appliances                                     Once every year (if designed for sweeping)
Oil Fired Appliances                            Once a year

Prevention of chimney fires
Do not light fires using flammable liquids such as petrol or paraffin.
Do not burn paper or rubbish on fires in the grate.
Do not overload the fire with fuel.
Use a spark guard especially when the fire is unattended to prevent embers setting fire to furnishings or carpets.
Check the loft occasionally when the fire is alight. Check for smoke from cracks, defective brickwork and mortar joints
Have heating appliances installed and properly maintained by competent engineers
Check ventilation grilles are clear of obstruction.
If you fit double glazing install the type with trickle vents

In the event of a chimney fire
Dial 999 and ask for the Fire Service.
With a conventional open fire, extinguish the fire by gently splashing water onto the open fire.
For a solid fuel appliance, close down the ventilation as much as possible.
Move combustible materials and furniture away from the fireplace
If available place a fireguard in front of the fire.
Feel the chimney breast in other rooms for signs of heat and if a wall is becoming hot move furniture away.
Prepare for the Fire Service to access your attic or roof space as they will want to check this area for signs of possible fire spread.

Take heed or otherwise one day coming home to a REAL fire may not be as attractive as it sounds.