Crested Butte South chimney fires give residents a scare

No injuries reported
It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it—and if it isn’t done, it could mean life or death for some.




Chimney cleaners not only have one of the dirtiest jobs, but also one of the most important, as their work helps to prevent potentially devastating residential fires—an event two Crested Butte South families experienced this past weekend.
On Friday, January 18, Crested Butte South resident Kristen Anderson found out just how scary it can be when smoke starts to enter the house rather than exit it. Anderson says that within minutes of stoking the fire in her wood-burning stove to combat the cold temperatures, smoke began billowing into her living room. The smoke alarms sounded and the air quickly thickened.
“I turned away for just a minute, and when I looked back I could see smoke coming from the seams of the chimney pipe,” Anderson says.
 Anderson quickly grabbed the phone, dialed 911, scooped up her dog and ran out of the house to look for flames. “I closed the fireplace door on my way out,” Anderson says.
Anderson escaped from the minor chimney fire with no injuries and little damage to her house, due in part to her quick reaction and the efforts of the Crested Butte Fire Protection District volunteer firefighters, according to fire chief Ric Ems.
Jack Dietrich, a volunteer firefighter for the Crested Butte South metro district, was the first to respond to the fire. Dietrich brought a chimney kit that contains tools to help extinguish a chimney or fireplace fire, including a Chemflex stick, which can put out a chimney fire quickly by sucking out all of the oxygen from the appliance.
Dietrich says although a chimney fire is unlikely, it can happen.
“Definitely have your chimney cleaned and inspected at least once a year—some people even have it done twice a year,” Dietrich says.
Ems agrees and says, “Annual maintenance helps to keep the efficiency high and prevent fires.”
 If one chimney fire doesn’t encourage such action, then a second surely does. A second chimney fire was reported in Crested Butte South on Saturday, January 19 at 9:37 a.m. after the resident witnessed flames coming from his roof while he was walking his dog. The resident quickly called 911 and four volunteer firefighters from Station 3 in Crested Butte South responded. Reinforcements from Stations 1 (Crested Butte) and 2 (Mt. Crested Butte) arrived on scene shortly after.
Ems says although the Anderson Drive fire is still under investigation, it is believed the fire started where the chimney pipe penetrates the roof. The embers caught the roof rafters and the gable holding the chimney on fire, according to Ems.
No one was hurt in the fire, and the home had only minor damages.
Ems says this is a record month for fire calls: the department has already received 21 calls within 22 days. Not all of the incidents were emergency-related or resulted in fire.
In 2004, there were 25,200 residential structure fires in the United States originating in chimneys or fireplaces, according to an U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report dated July 2007. The fires resulted in 20 deaths, and $121 million in property damage.
 The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends yearly chimney inspections and classifies inspections as Level 1, Level 2 or Level 3.
A Level 1 inspection is recommended for a chimney under continued service, under the same conditions, and with the continued use of the same appliance.
A Level 2 inspection is required when any changes are made to the system.
Additionally, a Level 2 inspection is required upon the sale or transfer of a property or after an operation malfunction or external event that is likely to have caused damage to the chimney. Building fires, chimney fires, and seismic events, as well as weather events are all indicators that this level of inspection is warranted.
Anderson will need a Level 2 inspection because of the damage that occurred during her chimney fire. Anderson says the estimated cost for the inspection and cleaning will be around $300.
Her wood-burning stove is currently condemned until the stove can be re-certified. Anderson’s stove had not been swept in two and half years.
“It was nothing major, but it made me realize that I have to keep stairs cleaned and clear and pay attention to other details in the house,” Anderson says. “You don’t think it’s going to happen to you, but it can happen and you have to make sure you’re prepared.”
When a Level 1 or Level 2 inspection suggests a hidden hazard and the evaluation cannot be performed without special tools such as a small camera to access concealed areas of the chimney or flue, a Level 3 inspection is recommended.
Ems says if you have to really prime the wood stove or fireplace to start a fire, it may be an indication that the exhaust system may be blocked.
“It’s a tell-tale sign there is restriction in the pipe if you have to ball up lots of paper to create a draft, or you’re finding it difficult to light a fire,” Ems says. “If that’s the case, get someone up there to clean it.”
A Level 3 inspection addresses the proper construction and the condition of concealed portions of the chimney structure and the flue. Removal or destruction, as necessary, of permanently attached portions of the chimney or building structure will be required for the completion of a Level 3 inspection.
John Solanik, owner and president of Mountain Fireplace Specialists Inc. and certified fire inspector, says users sometimes confuse how often they should get inspections with how often they should have the chimney swept.
 “You should have it inspected once a year, and swept as needed,” Solanik says. “Some systems will require more maintenance than others.”
Inspections, according to Solanik, help determine the viability of the system, as things can change from season to season, while cleaning the system addresses buildup of fuel.
Solanik says burning habits, the type of appliance, the type of fuel, and the moisture content of the fuel can all influence how often a chimney needs to be swept. “A good rule of thumb is to never let your system have more build-up than a quarter of an inch,” Solanik says.
The buildup Solanik is referring to is creosote—the residue from the smoke and ash in the chimney. Solanik says creosote is highly flammable and when ignited it burns extremely hot. Physically sweeping the chimney removes the fuel from the system.
“Don’t let the fuel buildup in the system,” Solanik warns. “There are users out there that need to sweep their system multiple times a year.”
Solanik says the best safety route is prevention. He recommends having your system serviced regularly, burning dryer wood, and having small and hot fires that avoid banking or dampening down.
For more information about chimney and fireplace safety, visit the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) at or call
(800) 536-0118.

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