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New Spin on an Old Problem – Vacuuming up Fireplace Ashes

Vacuum HoseI’ve got a fire investigation report on my desk from a fire our troops examined recently.  The homeowner built a fire in the fireplace and cleaned the hearth afterward.  He used the vacuum to remove dirt, wood chips and ash from the hearth while the newly built fire was burning.  The fireplace had glass doors and investigators surmise the vacuum may have sucked some live embers out under the glass.  Upon cleaning up the hearth, the homeowner emptied the vacuum out into a plastic garbage can in the garage (this was a pretty neat and tidy guy).  A couple of hours later the wife came home and opened the automatic garage door to find the garage charged with smoke and the garbage can almost consumed by fire.  Fire had burned into the common wall between the garage and house causing about $30,000 in damage.

A vacuum cleaner bag or canister is filled with combustible dust.  Dust represents the finest particle size and provides the best surface-area-to-mass ratio a fuel can have.  Circulate a bunch of air through that (by vacuuming), add hot embers, and you’ve got a pretty good formula for ignition.  Give it some more air by dumping it into a garbage can and you’re mixing it up even more.  It’s not surprising that the garbage can was on fire a couple of hours later.

We’ve not seen this happen before, but the mechanism is easy for us fire investigators to understand.  Consequently we’re trying to get the word out so we don’t see this fire happen again.

If you use a vacuum to clean your hearth (and I do that at my house), ensure you don’t get ANY live embers in the vacuum.  If you think that may have happened, remove the bag or canister and set it outside away from the house.  Remember any filter in your vacuum may have embers hung up there too.  If you suspect you picked up live embers, you might want to move the entire vacuum outdoors and away from the house.  You could also dump the dust into a metal container and douse it with water to ensure any embers are extinguished.  Either way, embers that have been given plenty of air in a vacuum and stored with combustible dust are just waiting to ignite.

If you’ve got questions about fire safety you can call us at 509-466-4602, or e-mail me at dbleeker@scfd9.org, or you can post your question here.

Christmas Fireplace Safety

Christmas WoodstoveOkay, our last topic for the Christmas season regards your woodstove/fireplace/pellet stove.  Since it’s winter time, these heating appliances are getting used more often.  That’s what they’re designed for.  There are a few tips we recommend you follow this Christmas to keep a bunch of firefighters out of your house (they will track snow in on your carpet if they show up!).

First of all, you’ve heard it here before, ensure your chimney is cleaned and inspected at least annually.  If everyone in Fire District 9 did that, we probably would not respond to another chimney fire.  That little bit of maintenance is the best insurance policy you can have against a chimney fire.

Secondly keep an adequate clear space around your stove or fireplace.  We accumulate a lot of combustible decorations around the holidays.  Ensure you keep these things a safe distance from the fireplace and woodstove.  I once investigated a case where a woman’s robe caught fire from a fireplace insert.  She was just sure that should not have happened.  On the front of the insert was a red sticker warning users to keep furniture, toys and clothing away from the insert.  This lady stood right up against the insert to get warm one cold winter morning and could not understand why her robe caught fire.  Fortunately she was able to get it off and out before she got injured.  The point is that distance between combustibles and the heating appliance is an absolute necessity.

What about burning wrapping paper in the fireplace or woodstove?  We visited that topic last year (http://wp.me/p1jTZ6-61).  Wrapping paper provides the perfect surface-area-to-mass ratio and has very little fuel moisture.  Consequently a big wad of wrapping paper will get your stove to higher temperatures than normal in a much quicker time frame than the designer intended.  Your risk of chimney fire is high.  Prudent homeowners don’t take the risk and put wrapping paper in the trash.

Lastly, and this is a huge one lately, when you clean out the ashes, put them into a metal bucket and get them outside and away from the house, deck and garage immediately!  Ashes put in a bag or box piled in the back entryway happens so often it’s heartbreaking.  Cleaning the ashes out is a necessary chore.  Finish the chore correctly by ensuring the ashes are in a non-combustible container and that they get outside and away from the house immediately.  Either put the ashes on your garden plot (unless you have mulched the garden plot) or get them wet for one week before putting them out with the trash for collection.

We hope your family has a great time this holiday season.  As much as we like our customers, we hope we don’t get to meet you professionally this season.

Keep Your Christmas Light On, and Our Emergency Lights Off

Christmas Lights 2012

Christmas lights are another integral part of your home’s Christmas display.  The advent of Thomas Edison’s incandescent lamp drastically reduced the threat of fire from candles near Christmas trees, but fire departments still manage to conduct some business around the holidays due to Christmas lights.  The following tips will help reduce the chances that you’ll experience a fire at your home this Christmas.

 

 

  1. Ensure your lights have the UL seal.  Underwriter’s Laboratories ensures electrical products meet safety standards.
  2. Only use light strings for their intended use.  Don’t use indoor lights outdoors.  Manufacturers design light strings for specific applications and using them for conditions other than they were designed is asking for trouble.
  3. Only leave lights on when you’re home and awake.  That way if something does short out, you’ll notice it early and can take action.  If you’re away from home, no one will see the problem until smoke is billowing out of your house.  If you’re asleep, you may not become aware of a fire until too late to escape.
  4. Replace bulbs as soon as they go out.  Immediately replace lighting strings that are damaged or not working correctly.  The cost of a new string of lights is nothing compared to the cost of a fire.
  5. Pay attention to how many light strings you plug in end-to-end.  Most Christmas light strings have an integral 3 amp fuse in the plug.  Bulb size, number of lights, and wiring all impact how many strings can be used end-to-end.  So once again stick to what the manufacturer prints on the tag regarding how many strings you connect in end-to-end.  If you exceed that, you’ll overheat and start burning out fuses.
  6. Most 15 amp household circuits can have five sets of end-to-end strings of Christmas lights plugged in maximum (and that’s with no other electrical appliances on that circuit).  Exceed that, and you’ll start tripping breakers at your household service panel.  It’s never a good idea to plan on overloading your household wiring circuits.
  7. Ensure that any extension cords are rated for the amperage you’ll be demanding from them.  Keep outdoor extension cords where they won’t get wet.
  8. Do not coil your cords up in a nice neat coil.  I know, it looks much neater.  However, alternating current can create heat when the cord is energized and coiled up on itself.  Enough current with enough coils in the right location can ignite a fire.  I’ve investigated two such fires in my career.

 

Our ultimate goal is to not visit your house professionally this Christmas season.  If you’ve got questions about fire safety, you can call us at 466-4602, or e-mail me at dbleeker@scfd9.org, or you can post your question here on this blog.

Christmas Tree Fire Safety

Christmas Tree 2012If you don’t have your Christmas tree up yet, you probably have someone in your house clamoring for you to get it up.  Christmas trees are a central feature in homes this time of year.  While we recommend using a fake tree, a live tree can be used safely if you follow some simple guidelines.

We’ve referred to the scientists at the National Institute of Science and Technology before.  They’ve conducted a number of tests on Christmas trees.  The following are recommendations from NIST to ensure your live tree stays green and prevents easy ignition:

  1. Cut an additional two inches from the butt of the trunk when you get it home.
  2. Keep the tree in water constantly.  Check it daily.  Don’t let the reservoir dry out.
  3. Ensure needles are green and pliable. Trees with brown needles, that fall from the tree when shaken, and break when bent will ignite extremely easily and flash a room over very quickly.

Good Christmas light strings are also crucial.  If you’ve got old cords that are shorting or overheating, get rid of them and get new light strings that have the UL seal to ensure they’ve passed some level of safety inspection.

Keep candles away from any live vegetation displays.  Use UL approved electric lights near vegetation displays and keep the candles somewhere else.

Remember that all of the boxed gifts around the base of your tree, wrapped in combustible paper, represent a huge additional fuel load to your home.  Everyone has gifts under their tree (hopefully you get lots of gifts this year), just remember the hazard that poses to your home and use appropriate caution.

Today’s video is from NIST and shows a dry Christmas tree being ignited by an electrical short.  Note that at 29 seconds the couch is beginning to melt.  By about 44 seconds the couch and chair have ignited and thick black smoke is down to waist level.  A Christmas tree burning in your home will not give your family much time to escape so be extremely careful with your tree.  It will help preserve your home and your family.

 

If you’ve got questions about Christmas tree safety, give us a call at 509-466-4602, or e-mail me at dbleeker@scfd9.org, or post your question here on this page.

REFERENCES:  http://www.fire.nist.gov/tree_fire.htm

Christmas Candle Safety

Thanksgiving is over and despite the current lack of snow, everyone is gearing up for Christmas. So what do you need to know to be fire safe for Christmas?  Well there are four things we see a lot of at Christmas so we’ll take them a week at a time.

The first is candles.

The first device to approximate a candle was invented by the Egyptians who soaked reeds in tallow and burned that for light.  The Romans created the first real candle using a wick that burned tallow.  The problem with tallow (animal fat) was the odor and the smoke generated.  In the Middle Ages beeswax was found to burn clean and odorless, but only the rich could afford beeswax candles.  Colonial women in America found that wax obtained from bayberries emitted a pleasing scent but the work required was long and tedious.  The 18th century whaling industry gave us whale oil candles that were odor free and did not melt as easily in warm climates.  In 1834, a mechanical means of pressing candles out of whale oil wax was developed that made them easier to produce.  In 1850 paraffin (a byproduct of the oil industry) was found to be an even better candle material as it burned clean, left no scent, was cheap to make, and easy to store.  In 1879, Edison’s light bulb put a damper in the candle industry, but we still use a lot of candles around the holidays.

Candles can be used safely.  Here are a few tips to ensure your candle doesn’t burn the house down.

  • Don’t leave candles burning unless an adult is present in the room.
  • Don’t use candles while you sleep.
  • Keep candles in stable metal, glass or ceramic containers.
  • Keep lit candles in locations that are inaccessible to children and pets.  We can’t tell you how many times a pet has knocked over a candle.
  • Candles should not be used where there are drafts or air currents (furnace ducts, ceiling fans).  Drafts cause unequal burning, rapid melting, and excessive dripping.
  • Stop using a candle when it gets down to two inches tall (1/2 inch if in a container).
  • Keep a one-foot radius of clear space around and above candles.  No fabric, paper, or any combustible should be within this clear space (curtains, bedding, newspaper, etc).
  • Avoid burning a candle for more than four hours
  • Don’t move a lighted candle.  Put it out, then move it, then re-light it.
  • Never move a candle with a liquid wax pool.  Let it cool first and then move it.
  • Keep wicks trimmed to 1/4” or less.  Long wicks create tall flames that can burn in irregular patterns.
  • Be cautious with fragrances in gel candles or around any candles.  DO NOT add your own fragrance.  Many fragrances are highly flammable and are not compatible with gel candles.
  • Some candles have been recalled due to fire safety concerns.  You can check on recalls at www.cpsc.gov

If you’ve got questions about candle safety, or any fire safety topic, post them here, give us a call at 466-4602, or e-mail me at dbleeker@scfd9.org.

REFERENCES:  http://www.candlecomfort.com/historyofcandles.html

Keep Fire Hydrants Clear of Snow This Winter

Last week I had to get the snow blower out.  It’s that time of year again.  As the winter season continues we can get some large snow accumulations here in the Northwest.  One concern for us is what happens with that accumulation and how it impacts access to fire hydrants.

If fire hydrants get buried in the snow, we can’t find them nor can we access them for use as firefighting tools.  In a structure fire situation that translates into more fire damage while we try to find a fire hydrant to use.  Some people view that as the problem of the property owner where the hydrant sits.  Actually a fire hydrant is placed in a utility right-of-way to provide protection for a large number of homes.  Even if you don’t have a fire hydrant in your yard, the availability of the hydrant in your neighborhood is crucial to how well your home survives a fire.

Spokane County Fire District 9 covers about 122 square miles and we have almost 2200 fire hydrants scattered across that turf.  As hydrants get buried in snow, our troops will find some of them, but we need help.  Neighbors ensuring their area fire hydrants are uncovered during snowy weather helps ensure a faster response to fire.

Ultimately, if we have to respond to your neighborhood, we want to get our job done quickly and seconds count.  If you’ve already ensured the fire hydrants are clear and visible, that means those seconds can be used to rescue victims or suppress the fire.  That kind of prior planning will make a difference.

Maintain Your Chimney and We Might Not Have to Visit Your House

It’s fall and heading toward winter.  With temperatures dropping, I’ve started using my woodstove again and I’m betting many others have too.  The question is how many chimneys have been cleaned this heating season?

A chimney’s job is to move smoke and products of combustion out of the home safely.  One product of combustion is water vapor (believe it or not).  Of course smoke and all products of combustion are hot when they’re produced.  As these products of combustion move up your chimney, they cool down, and eventually water vapor begins to condense on the inside of the chimney.  That condensation traps other products of combustion.  The water then evaporates leaving behind a built up layer of ‘creosote’.  At the point where the chimney penetrates the attic insulation level there is usually a big temperature change and much creosote is deposited at that level.  The term creosote is a bit of a misnomer.  Real creosote is a type of tar used to preserve wood.  It’s the black stuff on railroad ties.  Chimney creosote is not quite the same thing but it looks and burns the same, so the name has stuck.

Woodstoves and fire places are designed for high temperatures but chimneys are not.  Burning creosote in the chimney puts high heat where it’s not supposed to be and bad things begin to happen for the homeowner.  Elevated temperatures from a chimney fire cause both brick chimneys and metal stove pipes to expand or crack from the heat, leaving gaps in a once contiguous chimney.  Now products of combustion are no longer contained to the chimney and the home may be exposed to fireplace heat and smoke.  As the Chimney Safety Institute of America says, “One chimney fire may not harm a home.  A second can burn it down.”

Avoiding chimney fires requires two preventative measures:  technique and cleaning.  Using dry, seasoned wood will produce much less water vapor inside your chimney.  Also burning so that smoke gets up and out of the chimney quickly will help.  The more time smoke spends in your chimney, the more creosote is being deposited.  Fires that burn for a long time with a low damper setting are depositing more creosote than hotter, shorter-duration fires.

All fires will produce some creosote build-up.  So the second preventative measure is annual cleaning and inspection.  Cleaning removes creosote so there is no fuel for a chimney fire.  Inspection finds any damage to your chimney so you can repair it.

People who practice good woodstove and fireplace technique and have their chimneys cleaned and inspected annually don’t have chimney fires.  People who don’t follow these rules wind up meeting us face-to-face with axes and hoses in their living room.

If you have any questions on chimney fires, you can call us at 466-4602, e-mail me at dbleeker@scfd9.org, or post your question on this blog.  You can also check out the Chimney Safety Institute of America at www.csia.org.