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Get Ashes OUT of the House (and away from the house)

March 16, 2012

This is a repeat topic for us.  However, this is happening so much lately that our fire investigators have made these questions part of their regular interview checklist:  “Has anyone cleaned out the woodstove lately?  What did they do with the ashes?”

We keep meeting people who’ve been putting fireplace ashes in cardboard boxes for years and had no problem.  Unfortunately our meetings occur in the yard of a home destroyed by fire.  We even helped with a fatality fire this year where the cause was found to be fireplace ashes in a box placed on the deck.

Vytenis Babrauskas is a highly respected fire prevention engineer (who happens to live in Washington State) and he notes that ashes have a low thermal conductivity.  That means that one hot ember won’t be felt unless you put your finger directly on it.  The rest of the ash bed will insulate the hot part and you won’t feel it.  We surmise that this is giving people a false sense of security and they think the ashes are dead and cold.  Unfortunately that has not been the case.

We’ve said before that ashes should only be taken out in a metal bucket or metal container with a tight-fitting lid.  A quick tour of hardware stores today showed it was harder to find a metal bucket than I thought it would be.  Most stores carry plastic buckets.  We’ve tested plastic buckets with ashes and they burn fairly quickly.

I found metal buckets and metal buckets with lids at Ace Hardware.  Another place to check is farm and feed stores.  Aslin Finch on Newport Highway had some.  Outside of those two, I was hard pressed to find metal buckets for sale.

Here are our guidelines for handling ashes from your fire place.  Please use this checklist next time you clean out your woodstove or fireplace:

  1. Wait until the wood burning appliance has cooled down.  Don’t remove ashes while they’re hot.
  2. Use a metal bucket or container with a tight-fitting lid for transporting the ashes.  Plastic buckets will melt if there is enough heat.  A tight-fitting lid will reduce fresh oxygen supply to the ashes.
  3. Get the ashes outside and away from the house immediately.  Don’t leave them sitting somewhere until you have a chance to dispose of them.  Get it done now!
  4. Pour water in with the ashes to ensure they’re out, wet and cold.  Then let them set for a week.  If you want to dispose of the ashes in the garbage, pour cold, wet, week-old ashes in your garbage can when you put it out for pickup.
  5. Better yet, sprinkle the ashes on your garden (not if you have straw, mulch, or any other combustible covering on the garden however).  If there is snow on the ground, that will help ensure your ashes get cold and wet.  Over the winter, that material will settle into your garden plot to be worked in next spring.

REFERENCES

Babrauskas, V.  (2003).  Ignition handbook: Principles and applications to fire safety engineering, fire investigation, risk management and forensic science.  Issaquah, WA:  Fire Science Publishers.

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