Why we love Chimney Fire Safety Week

Come on, own up. If you burn solid fuel, can you remember the last time you had the chimney swept? If not, you’re lining yourself up to be on the list for a visit from the Fire Brigade, because it’s only a matter of time before you have a chimney fire. Fire and Safety Centre highlights the need to think of Chimney Fire Safety Week every week…

I make no apology for publishing this blog about Chimney Fire Safety Week when it isn’t Chimney Fire Safety week.

Why’s that? Because chimneys don’t know when the event takes place, and if I were a betting man I’d put money on the fact that neither do you – and what’s more, chimneys can catch fire at any time.

For the record, Chimney Fire Safety Week ran between September 5th and 11th in 2016. It was an awareness-raising exercise timed to remind us, as the nights draw in and get a little cooler, and we begin to think of lighting fires, that we ought to sweep the flue too.

You might imagine that with the advent of central heating, controllable at the flick of a switch or twist of a knob, that solid fuel fires were a thing of the past. To a degree, you’d be right, but they’re far from extinct. In fact a score of manufacturers sell freestanding stoves in hundreds of designs, and homes do still have open fires, perhaps as a feature only, but they are there nonetheless.

And their chimneys, which are not fit and forget technology, do catch fire. Admittedly, the autumn is a good time to get the sweep to pop round, but it’s not the only one, as we’ll see shortly.

Chimney fire every four days

Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue attended to put out a chimney fire somewhere in the county every four days last year. There are a number of reasons for the chimneys to stop working properly. Perhaps the birds have nested in there, and left behind a lot of combustible material that prevents smoke and fumes escaping. Perhaps bees have moved in – it has been known – and created lots of flammable wax, or perhaps there’s just a build-up of soot.

It doesn’t really matter what it is; the problem is the ‘why’ it’s happened, which is that people don’t maintain chimneys properly, if at all. As Steve Screaton, deputy community fire safety manager with Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue, explains:

“A log burner, multi-fuel stove or open fire can be a great way to keep warm in the winter, but without proper maintenance and a clean chimney, they can become dangerous.”

“We’ve seen that chimney fires are a particular problem in Lincolnshire, with having been called to 89 fires last year. The majority of these could have been avoided by simple maintenance and good housekeeping routines.”

“We recommend that all chimneys and flues should be cleaned and checked during the summer to ensure they are free from debris and in full working order before the heating season. A blocked or defective chimney can cause both chimney fires and carbon monoxide poisoning, so it’s essential to employ a professional, qualified chimney sweep.”

His point about carbon monoxide poisoning is a good one. Unlike a chimney fire, which can be seen for miles, carbon monoxide is colourless, odourless, tasteless, and will kill you. The only way to stay safe is to have a carbon monoxide detector fitted. The modern equivalent of the coal miner’s canary, a gas detector will alert you to the presence of gas before its concentration is enough to harm you.

How often should the chimney be swept?

The answer to that one depends on the type of fuel you burn, but here is the advice from Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue:

  • Wood – up to four times a year.
  • Oil – once a year.
  • Gas – once a year.
  • Bituminous coal – twice a year.
  • Smokeless coals – at least once a year.

More home fire safety tips

The Essex County Fire and Rescue Service offers more advice about fires in the home:

  • Have the chimney swept at least once a year, or more frequently if you burn wood.
  • Do not bank fires too high and remember to let them burn down well before you retire to bed.
  • Use a fire or spark guard to prevent accidental fires and make sure that it has the kite mark or conforms to a relevant British/European safety standard.
  • Do not place objects on or over the mantle-piece which may cause you to stand too close to the fire to reach or use them.
  • Inspect your chimney regularly – particularly in the roof space – to ensure that it is sound and that sparks or fumes cannot escape through cracks or broken bricks.
  • Avoid burning resinous woods as soot builds up quickly.
  • Buy only suitable fuels.
  • Do not overload the grate or appliance.
  • Above all, ensure that you have a working smoke alarm fitted on each floor or your home.

And that’s why we love Chimney Fire Safety Week. It tells us that we need to think about having the chimney swept on a regular basis as part of a fire safety regime for the home, and picks arguably the most important time of the year to share a message we should remember the whole year through.