Five Amherst blazes this year tied to improper chimney installation

AMHERST – Town firefighters may feel like they’ve spent 2013 caught in a sort of Groundhog Day scenario, one that Chief Mark Boynton wants to see come to an end right about now.

Starting at the beginning of the year, crews have battled five separate house fires in different parts of town that have one major common thread: All were caused by improperly installed chimneys for fireplaces and wood stoves.

The lone upside is there have been no injuries, but if it weren’t for smoke detectors in two or three of the fires, that may have been a whole different story.

The Dec. 13 blaze that heavily damaged Herb Kopf’s home at 3 Brookwood Drive marked the fifth time inspectors traced the origin to the wall space around the chimney, Boynton said. And the thought that there could be more cases of shoddy construction around town, and therefore more potential fires, worries him and his department.

“I am very concerned that a number of these hazards are likely to exist in Amherst,” Boynton said. The Brookwood Drive fire “is the fifth fire in Amherst in less than a year that has originated in the same location within each of the structures, has the same cause, and has been built in about the same time period.”

Prompted by the string of blazes, Boynton said he and the state Fire Marshal’s Office strongly recommend that anyone who has a brick fireplace built between 1950 and 1980 stop using it until a certified mason or chimney specialist can conduct an inspection.

Another fire at 11 Woodland Drive on Dec. 5 was reportedly caused by a stray ember from a wood stove, but wasn’t connected to improper chimney installation.

The issues that are causing the fires date back several decades. As did most of the suburban Souhegan Valley, Amherst grew rapidly in the late 1950s through the ’70s, overwhelming the small handful of town officials, who couldn’t keep up with the sudden demand for fire and building code inspections.

Plus, many of today’s fire and building codes didn’t exist back then, Boynton said, and one of the issues that wasn’t regulated was the installation of chimneys.

The crux of the problem, he said, is that combustible framing material, such as pine studs or plywood, were placed directly against the back or sides of the chimney and up against the surrounding masonry.

Without proper air space in between, Boynton said, the wood framing can’t withstand constant temperature changes and will over time begin to dry out, heat up and then smolder undetected within the walls.

Residents only become aware of the problem when flames break out, and if nobody is right there to snuff the fire or call for help, it spreads through the wall and often into the rest of the house.

Nobody was home when two of the five fires broke out, but even more concerning is the fact that three broke out in the middle of the night, when people were sleeping.

“That’s a good reminder as to the value of smoke detectors,” Boynton said. “Working smoke detectors are vital to saving lives and minimizing damage,” he said.

On Brookwood Drive, Boynton said, the fire “quickly extended from the first floor wall, where it originated, into the second floor and the attic.”

Nobody was home when it broke out. A neighbor reported it after noticing fire coming from the roof near the chimney.

The result, he said, was heavy fire, heat and smoke damage throughout the house.

Boynton noted that inspecting an existing home rather than one under construction can be a complex process, but stressed that it should be done.

“Unfortunately, there is no easy way to conduct these inspections to determine if they were constructed with the proper two-inch air space required by today’s building and fire safety standards,” he said.

“In most cases, a portion of a home’s interior or exterior wall must be removed to determine if a fire hazard exists.”

Boynton urges anyone with questions or looking for more information to contact the fire department at 673-1545.

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).