Amherst residents, heed the fire chief’s advice to prevent fires

Five fires this year have prompted Amherst Fire Chief Mark Boynton to issue a warning:

Anyone who has a house built between 1950 and 1980 should stop using their fireplace or wood stove until a certified mason or chimney specialist can conduct an inspection.

That is especially good advice given how cold it has been recently, meaning that fireplaces and wood stoves are being used even more often as folks try to stay warm without cranking up the oil burner.

According to a Telegraph story by Dean Shalhoup, “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.”

That’s pretty frightening for folks who live in homes built during that 30-year period, but the good news is, of course, that experts can check your chimney and fireplace and see if you have that problem.

Here’s the issue, according to Boynton: 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.

The chief’s advice is good and it would behoove all of us to listen. Sure, it will cost a few bucks to get the chimney and fireplace inspected – indeed, the chief said that it’s possible a portion of the home’s exterior will have to be removed – but whatever we spend will be well worth it if it keeps us from being driven from our homes by fire. Few things are more frightening than that.

We can lose everything, including our lives, if we don’t take precautions.