Winter flue season: Fire chief says check it out early |

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.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User