The arrival of cold winter weather often signals the holiday season. It also means an increase in this disaster that devastates hundreds of thousands of homes each year… a real disaster… not an over-cooked turkey.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) tracks the number of home fires, civilian deaths, injuries and direct property damage. The NFPA publishes the information in a table that’s organized by year. It’s astonishing to think that it was common in the 1970’s to have more than seven hundred thousand home fires each year. Thankfully, the average annual number is now about half that though it’s been stuck around 350,000 home fires each year for more than a decade.
A Sad Example
The house in the image below burned the Friday after Thanksgiving. The fire started in the chimney and spread through the living area to the sleeping rooms. It happened during the early evening. Thankfully, no one was injured though the house will likely be a total loss.
When a fire department responds to a house fire, they typically do so with a fire engine. It carries water to the scene and is designed to connect to the local fire hydrants to pump water through the fire hoses to contain and eventually extinguish the fire.
A small roof leak can cause significant damage though it’s nothing compared to the damage caused by a fire engine pumping water into your home. The basement in this house is now flooded with water used to fight the fire. That water has saturated much of the interior of the home as fire fighters sprayed water in from the top of the house.
Don’t Play With Fire
The owner of this burned home is reported to have started using the fireplace around midday. By the early evening, the house was burning. Many of us are careful when cooking and using appliances that could cause a fire. We’re not as careful about keeping our fireplaces and chimneys in working order.
Fireplaces and chimney’s should be inspected for broken parts, obstructions and build-up of flammable creoste in the chimney. Buying and burning a log to clean your chimney is NOT the same as having your fireplace and chimney inspected.
Having the fireplace and chimney inspected by a professional should also address the risk of carbon monoxide build up in the house from a damper that’s not working properly or other common problems like squirrels nesting in the top of your warm chimney.
A seasonal check-up should be relatively inexpensive, especially if you have a metal firebox and metal flue pipe. Those are common in houses built in the last few decades and they’re popular in renovation projects. The metal is smooth so it doesn’t typically build up flammable creosote like masonry fireplaces and chimneys.
The trade off is that these metal fireboxes and flue pipes are often surrounded by flammable building materials like wood framing in the chimney. It’s critical to maintain the appropriate gap between these metal fireplace parts and the wood framing to prevent a fire. It’s surprisingly easy for rodents to stuff one of these gaps full of nesting materials that create a fire hazard of which you’re not aware.
So Few Are Prepared for a Fire Loss
What would happen if you lost the contents of your house in a fire? Many of us are completely unprepared for a home fire… or any other disaster. We often operate under the assumption that theft is probably the worse thing that will happen. A fire loss happens so quickly, we don’t have any notice.
At the very least, you should prepare yourself in four ways:
- Maintain your fireplace and all combustion appliances (like stoves, furnaces and water heaters) by having them regularly serviced by professionals.
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your fireplace and combustion appliances. This is a more significant issue if your fireplace has a metal firebox. There may be recommendations about how long it’s safe to operate the unit and what precautions you should take when doing so. This is especially true for so-called “ventless fireplaces” and “ventless space heaters”.
- Maintain safety equipment to protect your household. Some of that equipment may be required by the building code though it should at least include multiple smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors if you operate a fireplace and combustion appliances. Home alarm systems with these devices tied into the system offer a higher level of protection for your family and possessions.
- Protect the stuff you can’t replace. There are a number of relatively inexpensive fire safes, online (offsite) computer backups and other ways to protect documents, pictures and family items that are unique or have a unique meaning to you.
The Cost of Loss
If we could further reduce the number of home fires, we could eventually reduce the amount we pay for insurance. Insurance companies project the losses they have to cover. In 2012, the most recent year for which the NFPA has published data, the direct property damage costs $5.7B. That’s a lot of insurance losses for which we all pay.
In addition to the basic preparation listed above, you can explore more significant solutions like fire sprinklers. There are some great technologies available that can be installed (particularly in new homes) for relatively low cost. In addition to providing peace of mind, these permanent systems may pay for themselves through lower annual insurance premiums.
Since we start using our fireplaces and combustion appliances more heavily in the winter, you could give the preventative measures listed above as holiday (Christmas and Hanukkah) gifts. It may be a bit of a disappointment to get a smoke or CO detector as a gift though the real gift may be showing a family member or friend that you care by helping them install it. You could get creative and give a gift certificate for a fireplace and chimney inspection. It’s up to you – please share your ideas!
As always, if you’ve got a comment or question, please share it below. Thanks!