Old ashes can cause major fires
By Jenn Watt
Published Jan. 17, 2017
The darkness and cold temperatures of the New Year asks us to recede to our dwellings earlier, closing ourselves up in our warm homes, folded into a blanket of snow. We fire up our furnaces and wood stoves, light candles for ambience and dig our way into our doorsteps surrounded by heaps of the white stuff.
It’s part of the charm – or pain, depending on your perspective – of winter, but it also means added diligence, maintenance and precaution to avoid fires and to assist those who would come to help.
Haliburton’s fire chief Mike Iles says more than anything he sees mishandling of ashes from wood stoves during the winter months. The remains of a warm fire need to be put into a steel pail and set far away from any combustibles. Ashes can start fires days after they were collected.
“I’ve seen them put in cardboard boxes and left on the deck,” Iles says. “Even if the ashes are three days old, I’ve still seen them be live and hot.”
A few years back, Iles attended a fire that he suspects was caused by someone vacuuming up ashes that were still hot. If you decided to clean up around the wood stove or chimney with a vacuum, be sure to put the machine outside when you’re done. “That vacuum should be put out in the middle of the yard and left there until you’re sure there are no concerns,” he says.
Ashes also off-gas, so if you put them in a pail, but don’t take them out of the house or garage, they will set off the carbon monoxide detector.
Burning seasoned wood is also an important practice to avoid chimney fires.
Tony Remmig, training officer for the Algonquin Highlands fire department, says when homeowners haven’t cleaned their chimneys or they burn wet or unseasoned wood, it can be dangerous.
“[Wet firewood] creates on the lining of your chimney you’re going to have what’s called creosote. That creosote is highly flammable and catches fire and you get your chimney fires,” says Remmig.
For those not using wood stoves, furnaces should be serviced each August or early September to ensure they are in good working order for the winter.
“If you keep a good regular maintenance schedule the likelihood of these events are greatly diminished,” he says.
Remmig also reminds residents to ensure good ventilation in the home. “The venting areas for these high efficiency furnaces need to be kept clean and open so there’s no back flow of carbon monoxide,” he says.
Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are also crucial – and they’re the law. In Ontario, you must have a working smoke detector on every storey and outside every sleeping area. Carbon monoxide detectors are also legally mandated and it is particularly important to install them near sleeping areas, according to the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs website, since humans are particularly vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning while asleep.
Fighting fires in the winter is much harder than it is during warm months for a multitude of reasons. From frozen equipment and bad road conditions to the reduced capacity of firefighters themselves working in frigid temperatures, responding to emergencies in the winter requires additional effort and caution.
“Hoses and nozzles will actually freeze,” says Iles. “In extreme cases you have to run a new hose.”
To avoid that scenario, water is kept flowing through the equipment, but that can lead to slippery conditions around fire trucks – another hazard firefighters must keep in mind as they try to put out blazes.
“The real impact is on the firefighters,” says Remmig. “Everything seems to be far more taxing when it’s colder weather.”
To assist firefighters, or any emergency responders who may need to access your property during the winter, keep snow shovelled both Iles and Remmig say.
When people plow their driveways, they think of the size of their own vehicle, not the size of a firetruck or ambulance, Iles says.
“Then you have difficulty accessing around the building,” he says. “One of the issues with winter firefighting is physically getting around in the snow.”
Each of the townships’ fire departments have staff available to consult with homeowners about fire prevention. They can assist in selecting and placing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and give information on best protecting your home.