Chimney fires focus of fighter drill
October 5, 2023
Last Thursday, volunteer firefighters from departments across the county attended a drill at the Puget Island Fire Department to learn how to respond to chimney fires.
At one station, participants got an overview of chimney fires from District 4 volunteer Jack Leavitt and a lesson in how to describe the kinds of scenes they respond to over the radio.
District 4 volunteer Billy Peek gave a lesson on all the elements included in a chimney kit at another station, and Puget Island Fire Chief Mike Beutler talked about the importance of public relations in firefighting at the third and final station.
"Chimney fires are unique," District 4 volunteer M.D. Johnson said. "A lot of times chimney fires are downplayed. The house isn't on fire, so it is isn't dramatic. A lot of times it's not visible."
A chimney kit, he told me, includes an "old school metal garbage can with a lid. In the kit is everything you will theoretically need to take care with a chimney fire."
The kit includes a metal shovel, which not only helps to open the door of a wood stove but is used to move everything from the hot stove into the metal garbage can, which is then taken outside.
There are tarps or runners to protect carpeting and hardwood floors in the kit.
"This is one of the few situations where we are going into a home," Johnson explained. "In a lot of cases we are taking boots off and we are keeping things clean."
This is why Beutler's talk about public relations was so important.
"It may seem we talk about PR in a certain type of fire," Beutler said. "Every time we go out we are in front of our customers, our taxpayers, the people who are supporting us. Chimney fires aren't the only place we want to have good public relations skills, but there are some unique factors that go along with chimney fires."
"Usually we stay outside," he continued. "The majority of the time we are operating outside a home. But in this case, the homeowner is watching TV when they hear a snap, crackle, pop that doesn't sound right. Now they've got trucks outside, lights flashing, people walking in and out of there house. We've got to be thinking about what we are doing inside their world."
That means they don't need 15 people traipsing through the door, he explained. Think about the kids, the dog. Think about where you empty the garbage can after you've cleaned out the stove.
"You need to appreciate the homeowner's situation," Beutler said. "They went from a peaceful evening to this."
Another item in the chimney kit is called a snuffer. It is a heavy bullet shaped tool with little holes that fastens to the end of the hose and can be dropped down to the stove from the roof, misting the inside of the chimney as it travels down.
"You don't want to go up there with a fire hose and start spraying lots and lots of water," Johnson said. "One, it's going to make a terrible mess. Two, things are hot in there and when the cold water hits all that hot stuff, especially brick, it's going to create a lot of damage."
"Two things that people are going to ask when you go to a home for a chimney fire: How can I prevent this in the future? Who can clean my chimney?" Johnson said.
"Jack Leavitt was telling me that probably half of the structures he has been on started as chimney fires," Johnson continued. "You can prevent it in the first place by cleaning your chimney. That's the biggest thing. Burn the best wood that you can. If you burn wet wood, it's going to create a problem."
Johnson recommends cleaning the chimney at least twice a year, as he does.
"Once in February as soon as we get a break in the weather," he said, "and I just did it here three weeks ago, end of August, beginning of September. Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to chimneys."