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Ashes, Chimney Leaks Could Spark Fires

Smoldering ashes could be the homeowners' worst enemy. At least that was the suspected culprit in three Fairfax County house fires recently where bags of discarded ashes or cracks in the brick chimneys started fires.

On Dec. 23, a Burke home caught fire from "fireplace ashes placed in a cardboard box in the garage," the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue reported. Then Jan. 2 in the City of Fairfax, "a fire started in the chimney several hours after the resident had set a fire in the fireplace." The next day another Burke residence caught fire from "discarded fireplace ashes in a paper bag on the wooden deck," fire investigators reported.

Andrea Loewenwarter was at home the morning of Jan. 2 when the City of Fairfax Fire and Rescue Services arrived.

"It was really frightening, there were just flames leaping out," she said.

Jeff Hoeth, a resident of 32 years, who lives around the corner from the site of the fire said, "The chimneys all need to be relined. Ours, I know, needs to be done. We haven't used it in the last two years because we knew it needed to be done."

He is in the home improvement business so he is more aware and could see creosote seeping through the bricks in some parts.

"The average person would not notice it," Hoeth said.

Andrew Wilson of the City of Fairfax Fire Department was aware of the fire in Old Lee Hills where the ashes seeped through the cracks in the mortar.

"I think it was an original construction issue. It is possible to reline a chimney. Some of the stuff they use is almost like the stuff they make the space shuttle tiles out of," Wilson said.

THAT METHOD of chimney lining involves putting an inflatable mold inside the chimney, and pouring a solution down which clings to the inside, forming a coating.

Sheila Laszlo of fireplace maintenance company Ace & Ashless, said the creosote build up can reach a point, called "third degree," which is dangerous.

"It's usually the intense heat that gets the combustibles to start. Third degree creosote is dangerous," Laszlo said. Ace & Ashless specialize in steel chimney liners but she's aware of the liquid solution poured down the chimney. It was originally called "Golden Flue," Laszlo said.

"That method is recommended for older homes where the structure of the chimney is compromised," but she said steel was better. "They do crack," she added.

There is a "Chimney Sweeping Log," available at hardware stores, that claims to reduce creosote levels but Laszlo thinks it might instill a false sense of security.

"Nothing really removes creosote except for a brush," she said.

The information on the Chimney Sweeping Log package claims the log treats creosote in fireplace chimneys so it flakes off but adds an annual cleaning is necessary. Their disclaimer reads:

"The Chimney Sweeping Log does not take the place of inspection and professional cleaning."

THE OTHER TWO FIRES were from fireplace ash disposal. Renee Stillwell, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue spokesperson, said the general rule is to let the fireplace ashes sit in a metal container for 72 hours.

"We see a lot of property damage occur that way. I always say put them in a metal container, then put a cup of water on it," Stillwell said.

She also warned against putting any ashes on a wooden deck, in a plastic bag or plastic trash can. That goes for barbecue ashes too, she said.

"Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean ashes. Have your chimney checked every year by a licensed chimney expert," Stillwell said.

The county fire department has a program "Can Your Ashes," where they examine the issue of disposing fireplace ashes. In 2001, they said there was $561,976 worth of property loss caused by fireplace ash fires. Nationwide, according to a survey done by the National Fire Protection Association, from 1994-1998, fires started by a hot ember or ash that was abandoned or discarded caused 9,870 structure fires, 32 civilian deaths, 171 civilian injuries and $1,16.5 (in millions) worth of property damage. NFPA also recommends discarding fireplace ashes in a heavy metal container, moistening the ashes and covering the container with a metal lid. Never use a paper bag, cardboard box or plastic trash bag.

NFPA also notes that the ashes should be kept in a metal container outside, away from the house, not the garage or deck. After four days, select a non-wooded place to dump the ashes.