On an early Sunday afternoon a couple of weekends ago at a rural home southwest of Philomath, a fire broke in the residence’s chimney. Philomath Fire & Rescue rushed to the scene with an engine, tender and six personnel.

Although there was extensive damage to the chimney, the fire did not get into the interior of the house.

The response represented one of several flue fire calls that the department has seen since the weather turned cold. Deputy Fire Chief Rich Saalsaa hopes homeowners will clean the flues of their chimneys before starting to use them regularly over the winter.

“Over time, there can be a buildup of deposits on the walls of the flue called creosote,” Saalsaa said. “If not cleaned, this buildup can reach a point where it will itself combust into a fire in the flue, which is not designed to have that much direct heat.

“The fire can crack the sides of the chimney and the fire can rapidly spread to the attic through those cracks or onto the roof when pieces of burning debris are launched out of the flue by the force of the fire,” he added.

In the case of the flue fire a few weekends ago, firefighters determined that the chimney’s cleanout box was loaded with creosote.

Excessive buildup of creosote can be seen in this chimney, which was involved in a fire. (Photo provided by Rich Saalsaa).

“If the build-up is severe, there is also a risk that the unburned fuels will back up and into the living space, including carbon monoxide and other gasses, which can be deadly,” Saalsaa said.

Saalsaa offered the following tips for burning safely in a chimney:

Annual chimney inspection and cleaning. Philomath Fire & Rescue provides chimney brushes and rods for loan at no cost to those who have experience cleaning chimneys. Call 541-360-0030 to check on brush sizes and rods available. For those not able to clean their chimneys, it is suggested to hire a qualified professional. It is recommended that chimneys are cleaned when one-eighth of an inch or more of buildup is present. Added Saalsaa, it takes very little to cause a chimney fire.

Burn seasoned, untreated, dry firewood. That burning strategy will  minimize the buildup of creosote as the dry materials burn hot and completely with little smoke and residue, Saalsaa said. Treated wood will give off toxic fumes. Firewood should be seasoned for at least six months (20% or less moisture content) — stacks should be separated by air space to allow firewood to dry. In general, dense woods like oak, elm, maple and ash will take longer to cure than less dense woods like birch, poplar or any of the evergreen woods.

Know your wood burning stove or fireplace. Allow for adequate air to reach the fire box so that the wood burns efficiently. A smoldering, smokey fire causes buildup of creosote — as does wet wood.

Check the chimney’s lining or piping. Make sure your chimney is properly lined — and the liner is in good shape) — or that piping is well maintained. Check for smoke leaks or cracks in the pipe/chimney.

Have a quality chimney cap installed. A quality chimney cap will prevent any fire brands from escaping and onto combustible surfaces. In the case of a chimney fire, this can help the ejection of creosote matter onto the roof.

Don’t use liquid accelerants. Materials such as gasoline, kerosene or lighter fluid — when used to start a fire — can cause an out-of-control fire or explosion. Those accelerants should never be used in a fireplace or woodstove. Start with small kindling and just enough paper to get the kindling started. Do not use cardboard as this can contribute to both the buildup of creosote and burns extremely hot, which can set any creosote buildup on fire.

Owners should consult with the manufacturer of their wood stove, insert or a traditional firebox/chimney company for other recommendations.

Evidence that a chimney fire has ignited includes a whooshing or roaring sound coming from the fireplace or stove, visible fire at the top of the chimney or pipe, and excessive sparks and smoke backing up into the living space.

“Evacuate the house, close all house doors behind you, close any stove doors and close all vents — do not close the damper — and call 911,” Saalsaa advises home occupants if a flue fire is suspected.

In addition, Saalsaa recommends to “never store ashes in nonmetallic containers and never near the house. Always have working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in the house. Never leave a fire unattended and do not allow children to throw things into the fire. Never burn garbage or other non-wood materials in a fireplace or stove.”

For extra safety, Saalsaa suggests having a portable fire extinguisher handy if it is safe to use and the fire is small.

Anyone with questions can call Philomath Fire & Rescue weekdays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. at 541-360-0030.