AUSTIN (KXAN) – The Austin Fire Department has a warning when you turn up your home’s heat sources during cold weather.
AFD claims to have put out two fires in the past 24 hours. One after a space heater was too close to a fuel. The other — a surprise problem in a homeowner’s chimney.
Austin Fire Division Chief Thayer Smith said the fire at a home on Westlake Drive was caused by the lack of space or clearance between the flue and chimney flue. He says part of the chimney actually touched the wooden enclosure and, through a process called pyrolysis, caught fire.
“The wood decomposes and turns into a kind of charcoal over years and years of heating,” Smith said.
“I never thought of that. We’ve had fires in this chimney since 1997,” says owner Phillip Berry, who says they started their first fire of the season on Thursday night.
After a few hours, Berry said his wife, Susan Landers, received a phone call from their fire alarm company saying there was a fire upstairs.
“She went upstairs and she said, ‘It’s really smoky in here!’ And the lady said to him, ‘Get out of there, get out of the house!’ Berry recalls. “When she came downstairs, she said, ‘I heard…I heard the fire crackling behind the wall.’ I went, ‘Oh! We have to get out of here!’
On Friday, Berry showed KXAN around his house. The firefighters had demolished the wall of the chimney on the floor, where the fire had declared. The carpet is soaked with fire hoses and there is insulation debris, as well as drywall all over the floor.
Smith says the current code requires at least two inches of clearance between a flue and its surroundings, depending on the type of chimney, flue and materials used.
But he thinks the minimum is not enough, especially when the flue is not made of stone or brick, which he says is more common in other areas.
“Around here, you see a lot of wood, wood-burning fireplaces with low clearances. And just over time, that’s just a recipe,” Smith says.
So if you’re building a house, Smith says it’s a good idea to ask for more clearance than is needed — at least six inches, depending on the materials used.
Berry and Landers agree.
“I think it would be prudent for people buying a home, new or old, to try to understand…how their hearth and chimney are built,” Berry said.
The couple say their smoke detector saved their home – and possibly their lives.
“I’m so grateful my house didn’t burn down,” Landers said.
AFD reminds people to make sure all of their smoke detectors are working, and perhaps place one closer to your chimney.
According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, a trip to your attic can give you a view of your clearances, but homeowners should never inspect their chimney, fireplace, or venting system themselves and should instead call a CSIA-certified chimney sweep. .
The couple are yet to cancel Thanksgiving with their family, hoping the power will be restored in time.