With more than two months left of winter, cleaning your chimney could be an important part of avoiding a house fire.  According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, more than 24,000 chimney fires happen in the United States, every year.  Damage from those fires averages close to $125,000. Most of those fires are avoidable, with routine maintenance.  Daniel Taylor works for "Chimney Safe", spending his days cleaning chimneys, among other things.

"Sweep the flue, vacuum it out, clean out your fire box or wood stoves, depending on what you have," Taylor said. "We also check for repairs, a lot of masonry stuff, there's cracks in the brick work." 

Taylor says chimney fires are fairly common, even though many are never even noticed.  As fires burn, residue called creosote builds up in the chimney.  The build-up is extremely combustible and burns very hot. He noticed evidence of one fire, after he removed a chimney lid in the Virginia Highlands.

"It looks like we had a pretty hot chimney fire," Taylor said. "The screw was actually slightly melted." 

Some of these fires are contained within the chimney, but can cause damage to the liners and structure of the brick.  Cracks can create a pathway for flames to reach the wooden frame of a house, creating a potentially dangerous situation.

"The creosote builds up, catches on fire, and most chimneys are built to handle it but over the years, the wear and tear can cause a house fire," Taylor said. 

Taylor says every time someone burns a cord of wood, it's time to get the chimney swept.   For most, that is about every three months.  "Chimney Safe" charges $100-$120 to clean a chimney. 

"It's all just about safety," Taylor said. "I mean, you're building a fire inside your house. So, there's always a threat there."

Written by Paul Nelson