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Winter flue season: Fire chief says check it out early

Clogged chimneys, hot embers and Christmas decorations have a way of making the holidays a nightmare.

South Lake Tahoe Fire Department estimates that this season firefighters have already been called to more than 20 chimney fires.

A fire on Ralph Avenue Tuesday afternoon started because a flue attached to a wood stove was clogged. Firefighters wet the shingled-roof to make sure sparks from the fire didn’t escape to a neighbor’s house.



“People are used to loading the fuel box which in turn ignites the creosote backed up in the flue. It lights up like a Roman candle,” said Capt. Joe McKenna. “Someone should not start a fire until they have had their flue cleaned and checked by a certified chimney sweep.”

Creosote is a highly flammable black or brown residue that collects in flues while wood burns. If there is a build up of residue, which can either be flakey or glass-like, a professional can brush or chip it out.



Spark arresters, or chimney caps, are also recommended because we’re in an area where fire danger is high.

“Every chimney should have a cap on it,” said Cindy Deas, an employee for P&L Chimney Service based at King’s Beach. “Helps keep water, moisture and nesting animals from going down the flue. The sparks can spread to the roof, especially if it’s a shingle roof. It’s usually a neighbor who sees the fire before you even know you’re having one.”

Disposing of hot embers left by a fire can also be a problem. The embers need to be dead before they are put in or near anything that’s flammable, including full dumpsters.

“People come up here and want a nice fire in a fireplace and leave after a weekend and take what appear to be dead ashes and put them in a paper bag on a wood deck,” said Tahoe-Douglas Assistant Fire Chief Bruce Van Cleemput. “All it takes is wind or just the air to come along and get the bag going and a fire started. All the fire districts have had this type of problem.”

Dumpster fires are not common but do happen a few times each year. South Tahoe Refuse Company collects the garbage of about 20,000 South Shore residents and every once in a while hot embers begin to smolder in the truck beds.

“Occasionally we’ll have some hot trucks come in and we unload them in a separate area and see that it’s put out,” said Jeanne Lear, company spokeswoman. “Loading the embers into a sealed metal container is not a good idea. Our trucks compact so they can come open. The ideal thing to do is to store them in a metal bucket in a non-combustible area for quite awhile.”

If garbage can be dangerous, so can decorations. In 1997, 400 fires occurred because a Christmas tree somehow ignited. The fires resulted in 14 deaths and $10.3 million in property damage. And during a period of four years, candles started more than 8,000 fires that caused 104 deaths and nearly $126 million in property damage.

“We have had Christmas tree fires … that’s a wildland fire in your house and you don’t want that,” Van Cleemput said. “The trees need to be maintained. They need to be kept hydrated.”

Tree Tips: (Courtesy of National Fire Protection Association)

– Place tree well away from heat sources and water it constantly.

– All artificial trees should be marked “fire resistant.”

– Replace frayed or damaged light cords.

– Unplug Christmas lights before you leave home.

Candle Tips:

– Place candles in sturdy, non-combustible holders.

– Don’t leave children unattended around candles.

– Never decorate a tree with candles.

Fire Tips:

– Have your fireplace inspected by a professional before the start of every heating season.

– Only burn wood. Burning paper or pine cones may spark a fire on your roof or a neighboring home.

– If you decorate your fireplace with seasonal decorations don’t use the fireplace.

– Burning unseasoned wood speeds creosote build up.

– Low temperature fires and masonry chimneys are also conducive to the formation of creosote.


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