Don’t Burn Your House Down: Bonfires, Chimneys, Heaters

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Our previous articles on basement and Christmas tree safety look at two unique causes of accidental home fires. Today, let’s look at three additional ways that you can protect yourself and your family from fire and related health hazards.

Safety first, then have fun! Image credit: Ian Carroll. Licensed under CC BY 2.0
  • How to safely locate, prepare and control a recreational, ceremonial or yard-waste bonfire.
  • How to maintain your chimney and prevent fires, and when to get help from a professional chimney sweep.
  • What to look for when purchasing a portable space heater and how to operate it safely and efficiently.

Bonfire Safety — Is it OK to burn that?

Who doesn’t enjoy gathering around a large, cozy bonfire to sing songs, celebrate life’s milestones or clear the backyard of autumn leaves.

People who don’t take proper safety precautions, that’s who. In eastern Idaho four people suffered severe burns when their recreational bonfire exploded, after a participant poured gasoline over it.

Whether you are preparing your annual burn of yard waste or sharing an outdoor blaze with your neighbors, school or club, let’s plan for a safe and healthy bonfire experience.

While you’ll need to ask your city or county authorities for local burn regulations, following are some general guidelines designed to help you experience a safe and healthy blaze.

Where to burn

When you prepare the area for the bonfire:

  • Try to locate the site upwind of your neighbors. In any case, let them know about your plans. Don’t light the fire if your neighbors have their windows open or are spending time outdoors.
  • Locate it a safe distance from buildings, fences, hedges, brush, trees and roads — smoke can dangerously reduce visibility for drivers — which might range anywhere from 25 to 150 feet or more. Local codes may specify the legally required distances in your area.
  • Clear the area around the fire until there’s only bare soil. If a fire pit or ring already exists, use it instead of unspoiled ground.
  • If the fire is inside of a non-combustible container, you can place a wire mesh over it to help keep sparks from flying out.
  • Check the weather forecast for windy conditions, when smoke and fire can easily spread out of control. If necessary, postpone the burn for another day.

When you light the match:

  • Don’t use fire accelerants, such as barbecue lighter fluid or gasoline. They are very dangerous, as the Idaho case shows. On beaches, accelerants can even poison the sand, according to the National Park Service.
  • Keep an eye on the children. Don’t allow them within at least three feet of the fire pit. UC Irvine Health suggests managing children around a bonfire the same way you would manage them around a pool.
  • Local codes often require the presence of a fire extinguisher, garden hose, water buckets and/or shovels. The extinguisher should have a minimum UL label rating of “4-A”, which indicates a five gallon capacity and the ability to extinguish burning wood, paper and other ordinary combustibles.
  • Keep the smoke under control and don’t let it reduce visibility on nearby roads.

Before leaving the site, extinguish the fire completely. Don’t bury hot coals in dirt or sand — they can continue to burn for up to 24 hours. Instead, pour water over the coals every five minutes until extinguished.

What to burn

The safest fuel is seasoned, untreated and unpainted hardwood without nails. Soft woods like cedar and pine are moist and will throw potentially dangerous sparks into the air.

Don’t burn wood that has been treated with preservatives, which can release toxic gasses into the air. Older treated lumber is especially dangerous because it may include arsenic.

Avoid rubber which can produce black smoke, as well as roll off the bonfire and into the crowd while aflame. It can also endanger your health and create air pollution. Rubber is not a clean burn; automobile tires release petroleum products into the atmosphere.

In addition, trash, garbage, paint, aerosol cans, plastics and other household waste release such toxic chemicals as hydrochloric acid and dioxins, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Corrugated cardboard and other paper products create a light ash that blows into the air.

Yard waste

Another traditional “bonfire” familiar to many homeowners is the annual burning of yard waste. This might include grass clippings, trees and tree stumps, trimmings from trees and shrubs or palm fronds.

However, yard waste fires produce smoke that can cause health problems for people with respiratory ailments, such as allergies, emphysema, asthma or chronic bronchitis.

Some communities allow it so long as you follow local regulations, while others ban it completely. Many government agencies recommend composting as a healthier and more environmentally-friendly practice.

Don’t Let Your Chimney Catch Fire

Gone are the days when Victorian chimney sweeps danced with Mary Poppins across the rooftops of London. Modern chimney safety is a serious business. Keep that cozy blaze in the fireplace, where it belongs.

Chimneys, chimney connectors or fireplaces cause over 22,000 residential structural fires every year. To keep your family safe and your hearth warm, learn how to take the right precautions and when to call in the experts.

The main culprit is creosote, a flammable wood residue that builds up in the flue over time. If it ignites, the blaze might penetrate unrepaired gaps or holes and spread to the rest of your house. Newport, New Hampshire, flames escaped through a six-inch hole in the side of a wood-stove chimney, setting fire to a 245-year-old Colonial house.

Cap and seal

Curiously, exposure to water damages chimneys more often than do fires, creating gaps and cracks that allow creosote to accumulate and fires to

Place a cap over the top of your chimney to keep the rain out. Hire a contractor to install it correctly, according to John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at UL, which develops product safety standards. “It should be far enough from the opening not to bother the flow of air that comes up,” he says. “If your fire doesn’t burn brightly enough, it could be the cap.”

If your chimney is constructed of masonry, seal the interior with a vapor-permeable waterproofing agent. “It is [also] best if a professional does this for you since they can also look at the bricks and mortar to see if poor maintenance has caused any problems,” says Drengenberg.

Watch for sparks

Chimneys radiate heat and shoot sparks into the outside air, which is another good reason to install a cap. Also remove tree branches and leaves to a distance of fifteen feet from the chimney.

No matter how pretty the flames look, don’t build them up until they reach into the chimney, which happened to this home in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts last winter. “Use dry, well-aged wood, not greenwood,” says Drengenberg. “The slower wood burns, the more creosote you’re going to get.”

Service it regularly

Hire a chimney sweep to perform an inspection annually, plus anytime after a chimney fire or severe storm. Do so even if you don’t see any damage, according to the Midwest Chimney Safety Council (CISA). Also have them sweep it clean of creosote and general debris at least twice during the wood-burning season.

In between formal inspections, “look for the telltale signs that something’s out of the ordinary,” says Drengenberg. “Is the fire not burning as brightly as it should? Is moisture falling into the fireplace? Look for rusting in the flue pipes that lead from your appliances, such as the furnace or water heater, to the chimney.”

Hire professional for the job. “You don’t just go and clean out the creosote yourself,” says Drengenberg. “You could knock some of the mortar loose or cause other damage.” Plus, never clean a chimney by intentionally setting a chimney fire.

Visit the CISA online for a list of certified chimney sweeps in your area. “These sweeps have been trained to the highest levels with peer-driven best practices, and they take an ethics pledge,” says CSIA communications and marketing director Tom Spalding.

A competent sweep uses cameras and lights to search for gaps, cracks or other damage that would otherwise go undetected. They should also remove debris that restricts air flow and creosote deposits that are at least 1/8 inch thick. Expect to pay approximately $100 to $300 for a visit, according to Spalding.

If you need new equipment, such as a flue or damper, “tell the contractor that you want one that’s certified by UL,” says Drengenberg. “We have a standard on factory-built chimneys.”

Beware of fraudsters

Fly-by-night chimney sweep operations are among the most common home improvement scams, according to the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. They might try scaring you with fake photos and debris that they claim come from your chimney.

Fraudsters often arrive without tools, insurance or even a sign on their van, according to Spalding. “Often the least expensive service, or hurried sales approach of, ‘I just happen to have that product that you need in my truck,’ is followed by the poorer quality,” he says.

Some final advice. You’re not Santa Claus, so don’t try sliding down a chimney like one. Just recently in Phoenix, a man got stuck trying to do just that, after accidentally locking himself out of his house. Two hours later, the fire department managed to pry him out.

Choosing and Using a Space Heater

Face it, they’re really convenient, but a little scary. Let’s take the mystery out of portable room heaters.

Heating equipment causes over 48,000 home fires each year, and 81% of the resulting deaths were caused specifically by space heater fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Why is this, when modern heaters come with multiple safety systems designed to prevent accidents?

“It’s not so much an unsafe heater as unsafe use of a heater,” says Drengenberg. “If you use them according to the design and use common sense, they’ll work just fine.”

If you’re going to own a portable heating unit, make it a good one and learn to use it safely.

Keep it in good working condition

Are you wondering if that used heater stowed away in the garage is still safe to operate? “With any appliance, don’t just plug it in immediately. Take a look at it,” says Drengenberg.

“If the cord is frayed and stiff, for instance, then it needs to be replaced,” he continued. “Check to see if the enclosure of the heater appears to be compromised in some way, such as cracked or dented. Also, if the grill is not in place, kids can stick their hands in the heating element or components.”

Look for a Safety Label

When shopping for a new space heater, the US Department of Energy recommends one that carries the UL label, which indicates that the model’s design has been safety-tested. Consumer Reports also lists two alternative certification labels, ETL (Intertek) or CSA (Canadian Standards Association).

The kind of testing required to receive a product safety label includes trying to anticipate how a consumer might actually operate the device in the real world.

For instance, “in the ‘abnormal test,’ we recognize that people sometimes use a heater in ways that we don’t recommended, such as drying clothing, which can restrict air flow and overheat the heater,” said Drengenberg. “We actually put layers of terrycloth over portions of a heater to see if the internal sensors shut it down.”

Space Heater Technologies

You can choose between two basic types of space heater, electric and combustion.

Electric heaters use electricity to heat a metal screen or housing, either directly or via an enclosed oil reservoir. Although they cost more to operate than a combustion heater, they are generally safer to use indoors.

Combustion heaters burn fuel, such as propane, wood or natural gas. In most cases, they aren’t recommended for indoor use. Besides the enhanced fire risk, burning fuel can pollute indoor air with toxic chemicals, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particles and acid aerosols.

Still, there are circumstances where you might want one. “Some energy conscious people are converting to wood-burning stoves,” said Drengenberg. “They are used in hunting lodges or other places where there is little or no electricity.”

When shopping, features to look for include:

  • A “tip over” switch that shuts the unit down if it gets tipped off of its normally upright position.
  • A thermostat to monitor room temperature, turning the unit off and on automatically.
  • A handle with a safe and comfortable grip.
  • A fan, if you want to distribute heat more widely throughout the room.
  • For electric units, a power cord long enough to reach any outlet.
  • For combustion units, a low-oxygen sensor that shuts it off before the room air turns bad.

Keep it three feet from the heat

Follow these rules when running your heater. First, don’t leave the room for more than a brief time without turning it off. Second, place it at a safe distance from anything that might burn or ignite, such children and furniture.

“Remember to keep your combustibles ‘three feet from the heat’ or ‘a meter from the heater,’” said Drengenberg.

When running an electric heater:

  • Place it in a dry location, because moisture can damage its components.
  • Don’t plug other devices into the same outlet, because heaters draw a lot of power.
  • Never run an electric cord underneath a rug or carpet.
  • Don’t use an extension cord, or at the very least use a heavy one rated for the amount of energy that it draws.
  • After turning it off, unplug it.

When running a combustible heater:

  • Open a door or window slightly to allow fresh air to circulate.
  • Use only the type of fuel rated for that heater.
  • Before refueling, wait until the heater has cooled down.
  • Don’t overfill the tank, because hot liquids expand.
  • Store extra fuel in designated containers (no plastic jugs) and at a safe distance from the heater.

David Arv Bragi, profile picture

David Arv Bragi is a multidisciplinary journalist with experience in health, safety, personal finance, technology, arts and cultural topics. He is also a former team leader and volunteer in community/tower emergency response teams. He currently lives just outside of Bellingham, Washington.