A house fire in Kansas City, Missouri last week could have been avoided if the fireplace had been constructed properly. Fire investigators who met at the scene agreed that the cause of the fire was a gap between masonry blocks that was not filled in with mortar. Heat escaped and ignited wood framing nearby causing $150,000 in damages to the structure.
In a November incident in Shawnee, Kansas improper construction with wood studs installed too close to the chimney caused a structural fire which was put out quickly. The contractor did not leave the required clearances to the wood framing, and a fire caused over $20,000 in damages to framing, finish work, and smoke damage throughout the home.
Unfortunately, this scenario happens more often than people think. Although the National Fire Protection Association lists 53,600 home structure fires nationally that involved heating equipment, that number could actually be much higher since not all fire departments send their reports via the internet.
A chimney specialist and fire investigator in Kansas City said that construction of chimneys and fireplaces must be done correctly per NFPA 211 Standards and International Residential Code requirements. Otherwise, a house fire may result. In most cases, house fires don’t occur until several years after the structure has been constructed making it sometimes impossible to hold the builder accountable. The fire investigator said that he cautions against homeowners acting as their own general contractor because the general contractor is ultimately responsible for all of the work, including the work of all subcontractors. If a professional contractor is hired he/she is accountable instead of the homeowner.
The Midwest Chimney Safety Council recommends that the installation of any chimney or fireplace be inspected by a professional chimney sweep or chimney inspector prior to finish work being installed that would hide the construction. This simple step could save lives and property. A competent chimney inspector should have a F.I.R.E. (Fireplace Investigation, Research, and Education) certification or a CSIA Certified Chimney Sweep designation.
According to the Midwest Chimney Safety Council masons normally don’t get enough training on chimney and fireplace construction as a part of their education program and many masons are trained by their parents or grandparents. Chimney inspectors often find fire hazards in or near chimneys during inspections, but much of what could cause a fire is hidden inside or behind walls so it is never found.
When any type of fireplace is installed it is important for the mason to read all of the manufacturer instructions and keep proper clearance to combustibles. The MCSC advises masons to get the extra training needed for this type of construction
Fireplace furnaces and circulating fireplaces are a bigger problem simply because the clearance requirements are greater than standard masonry fireplaces, and this is often overlooked by masons. A study of the manual prior to installation of these units is critical and should not be overlooked.
The Midwest Chimney Safety Council, Chimney Safety Institute of America, Masonry Heater Association of North America, and the National Fireplace Institute hold classes on masonry chimney construction, fireplace construction, and other related subjects throughout the year for professionals.