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Clean chimneys yearly for safety

Creosote, a highly flammable wood tar in dirty chimneys, is some bad gunk.

Every cold season, firefighters in South Shore respond to numerous calls for chimney fires ignited by creosote, which builds up in the flue, or the cylinder, that takes the smoke up and out of the house.

South Lake Tahoe Fire Chief Mike Chandler has responded to “hundreds” of chimney fires during his 30 years as a firefighter in the basin.



“They’re very common which is unfortunate,” Chandler said. “Generally they don’t total homes but we’ve gone into houses where we take the chimney apart because it’s threatening the structure.”

If a fire is caught early, cut off air supply and call 911, firefighters advised.




“A lot of times when it starts you hear a roaring sound,” Chandler said. “Frequently they won’t know it but their neighbors will see flames shooting from the top of the chimney.”

The tar is a yellowish to black oily liquid that collects in chimneys. Buildup accelerates when glossy, colored paper is burned or when proper airflow is denied.

A chimney fire can crack the inside of the flue, causing the fire to escape into the walls of a residence. It can also produce a Roman candle-like effect and spit flames and sparks from the top of the chimney, possibly igniting pine needles and catching the roof on fire, said Capt. Joe McKenna.

Firefighters knock out a chimney fire by shutting off ventilation or hitting it with water. But the water amount must be used with caution, or else steam can rise and crack the flue.

“They can be pretty hazardous,” McKenna said.

Bruce Kegebein, owner of Ashes to Ashes chimney sweep, said creosote often collects more quickly in wood stoves and fireplace inserts. Kegebein can vacuum about three to four gallons of gunk from a dirty flue.

A clean chimney is crucial to preventing a fire. Maintenance should be done once a year, Kegebein said.

Capt. Brad Piazzo advised residents to report the fire so officials can check the attic and hidden areas.

“If they go to bed that night it could really become a problem,” Piazzo said. “It could become life-threatening.”


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