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Editorial: Heed fire professionals' advice on fireplaces, heating sources

Sub-freezing weather has moved on for now, allowing Maryland residents to breathe a sigh of relief with forecasts calling for almost spring-like temperatures in the 40s and 50s in the coming days. But the frigid air will return soon enough, and Carroll residents can hopefully take away a few lessons from the spate of fires that were directly related to the cold snap.

Over the weekend and early part of this week, Carroll County’s volunteer firefighters were kept busy battling several blazes that started as chimney fires and another caused by a heater being used to thaw frozen pipes, according to notices of investigations issued by the Office of the State Fire Marshal.

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Fortunately, there were no injuries or deaths related to these fires, although each caused significant damage to the structures and contents.

Chimney fires typically occur when there is excess build-up of a substance called creosote in the lining of the chimney. When burning wood in a fireplace, byproducts like smoke, gases, unburned wood particles, tar fog and other assorted minerals flow up and out the flue and into the chimney. Since the chimney is typically cooler, condensation occurs and the resulting residue — creosote — sticks to the inner walls of the chimney.

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Carroll County saw a number of fires this weekend, as temperatures remained frigid.

All creosote is highly combustible, and when enough of it builds up, it can result in a fire. Some fires aren’t large enough to detect, and might not become serious, but get extremely hot and can cause damage to the chimney structure. As the structure gets worn down, it allows future chimney fires to spread through cracks to the wooden structure of a home, including the roof and attic, which can cause a more serious fire like we’ve seen recently.

The best way to avoid a build-up of creosote is to have your chimney cleaned and inspected each year. While it is recommended that you get your chimney swept in the fall, before the wood-burning season, it’s not too late to get it done, even if you’ve already used the fireplace a few times this winter. Other suggestions offered by fire professionals include burning wood that is very dry and making sure not to restrict air flow by closing glass doors on the fireplace.

Also make sure to safely discard ashes after cleaning a fireplace or wood stove. Store them in a metal bucket away from your home. Ashes can remain hot and potentially reignite if disposed of or stored improperly.

If using an alternative heat source like a space heater, make sure to keep it at least 3 feet away from anything combustible, such as curtains, blankets or area rugs. And make sure to turn it off before going to sleep or leaving the house.

While a portable heater might be useful in thawing frozen pipes, it’s not only a fire hazard, but in some instances may cause the pipe to burst, so it might be best to call a professional.

Hopefully, we won’t see another stretch of extreme cold temperatures in the teens and single-digits again this winter, but just normal weather will mean using fireplaces and portable heaters. Take the advice of local firefighters to heart to avoid potential dangers.

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