Anchorage fire officials warn neglected chimneys could lead to winter fires

Anchorage firefighters are cautioning residents not to neglect their chimneys this winter after a series of residential fires in recent weeks, the latest of 19 fires linked to chimneys in the city so far this year.

Anchorage Fire Department spokesman John See said chimney fires — which occur when heat or embers ignite a buildup of creosote, trapping flames inside the flue — can damage a chimney's lining. Witnessing such a fire, he said, is "quite an experience."

"It sounds like you've borrowed a 737 and strapped it onto your chimney — the sound level's really incredible," See said. "You run outside and you see flames about 10 feet up from your stovepipe; it's like a blowtorch, literally, along with the jet-engine noise."

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, home heating was the second-leading cause of fires from 2010 to 2012, including an average 45,200 fires a year with an annual average of 155 deaths, 625 injuries and $351 million in property losses. About 84 percent of those fires were "confined to chimneys, flues or fuel burners."

Anchorage Fire Department Assistant Chief Alex Boyd said the most recent chimney fire extinguished by responders, off Patterson Street in East Anchorage, was called in by a resident shortly after 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 29.

"The occupant had a fire in the fireplace and was concerned that the fire had gone up to the attic," Boyd said. "They had actually called when they found something that wasn't right, and they were evacuated when we arrived."

The fire, which charred overhead areas but didn't destroy the home's roof, was quickly put out by crews from Fire Station 14 near Tudor and Baxter roads after they cut into the ceiling to gain better access.

Boyd said flames inside the chimney's stack, which is designed to resist only the heat from smoke, caused the fire to expand.

"(It) was a fire within the stack that got through the insulation," Boyd said. "It either started something on fire around the stack or breached one of those penetrations."

Although there were no injuries, Boyd said the home sustained an estimated $35,000 in damage.

The city's latest chimney fire, reported Wednesday night at a home on the 8100 block of White Drive along the Anchorage Hillside, was put out by residents who poured water on the fireplace.

"They extinguished the fire in the box carefully, and the steam extinguished the fire in the chimney," Boyd said.

A single engine responded to evaluate the scene, Boyd said. Despite the outcome of the Wednesday call, he urged anyone who suspects their home has a chimney fire to call 911.

"You won't know how long it's been burning in there, how extensive it is," Boyd said. "We get there, we can check it out pretty quick."

Anchorage saw 21 chimney fires in 2015 and 15 in 2014 — but fire officials say chimneys can also aid the spread of fires that start elsewhere in a structure, including an Oct. 26 non-injury fire in southwest Anchorage.

Thirteen fire units responded just after 2 p.m. to a two-story home on Woburn Circle. Capt. Jaime Leon, who responded to the call, said the fire — which started in a furnace in the home's utility room — was initially brought under control in about half an hour.

A total of 21 units returned to the home shortly before 11 that evening after the fire flared again in the utility room's floor.

"Embers dropped down into an area that was hard to reach and didn't get overhauled, and those embers grew into a fire that entered the crawlspace," Leon said.

Firefighters had to "take apart" sections of the crawlspace to reach and extinguish the second fire, Leon said. The chimney — which did not have a wall separating it from the attic — carried much of the smoke to the attic, where it emerged during the evening call.

Leon said unused chimneys, like the one at his own home, generally don't pose a fire threat. Any that are regularly used for home heating, however, should be inspected and cleaned on an annual basis.

"I've spoken to a number of residents who've never had their chimneys cleaned," Leon said. "I guess people take for granted their chimney's protected."

A fact sheet on chimney fires from the Chimney Safety Institute of America, circulated by AFD, includes tips on how to recognize creosote and determine whether a chimney fire has occurred.

Chris Klint

Chris Klint is a former ADN reporter who covered breaking news.