When Flames Dance Upwards: A Guide to Extinguishing Chimney Fires

A roaring fire on a cold evening can be the heart of a home, providing a sense of warmth and comfort. However, it’s important to keep in mind that fires have the potential to escalate rapidly. Especially when it comes to chimney fires, there are additional factors to take into account. People often ask: what is the average time it takes to extinguish a chimney fire? The response can differ depending on the circumstances. However, before we proceed, let’s first examine the underlying factors.

Causes of Chimney Fires

Chimney fires can cause serious damage to homes and businesses, so it’s important for owners and managers to understand what causes them. Let’s look into the main reasons why chimney fires occur and explain them thoroughly.

A chimney on fire.

Creosote Buildup

Creosote is a tar-like, highly flammable substance that forms as a byproduct of the combustion process when wood is burned in a fireplace or wood-burning stove. It accumulates on the inner walls of the chimney over time. Creosote buildup occurs due to incomplete combustion, where not all the combustible materials in the wood are burned efficiently. Several factors contribute to creosote formation:

  • Low chimney temperature: A cool chimney doesn’t allow for proper draft and combustion, leading to creosote condensation.
  • Wet or unseasoned wood: Burning damp or green wood releases more moisture and results in excess creosote production.
  • Restricted airflow: A chimney with insufficient air supply can’t promote complete combustion.

The accumulation of creosote on the chimney walls becomes a significant fire hazard. When ignited, it can result in a chimney fire that can quickly spread to the rest of the structure.

Bird Nests or Other Debris

Bird nests, leaves, branches, and other debris can find their way into the chimney, particularly if there are uncovered openings or damaged chimney caps. The presence of debris within the chimney can be attributed to various factors:

  • Lack of chimney caps: Chimney caps serve as protective barriers against debris and animals, preventing them from entering the chimney.
  • Damaged chimney structure: Cracks or gaps in the chimney can allow debris to fall or accumulate inside.
  • Inadequate maintenance: Failure to regularly inspect and clean the chimney can result in the buildup of debris.

Debris within the chimney can catch fire if it comes into contact with the flames or hot gases. This ignition can lead to a chimney fire, posing a danger to the entire building.

Cracks in the Chimney

Cracks in the chimney structure refer to openings, gaps, or fractures in the masonry or flue lining of the chimney. There are several reasons why chimneys develop cracks:

  • Weathering: Exposure to harsh weather conditions such as freezing and thawing cycles can cause cracks over time.
  • Settlement: As a building settles, the chimney may shift, leading to structural cracks.
  • Aging: Older chimneys are more prone to developing cracks due to wear and tear.
  • Poor construction: Chimneys that are not built to proper standards or with inferior materials may develop cracks sooner.

Cracks in the chimney can be perilous as they provide an avenue for a chimney fire to spread to other parts of the house. Hot gasses and embers can escape through these cracks, potentially igniting surrounding structural elements.

Recognizing a Chimney Fire

Before we dive into the question of how long it takes to put out a chimney fire, it’s essential to be able to identify the presence of a chimney fire. Chimney fires can vary in their intensity and may not always be immediately obvious. Recognizing the signs of a chimney fire early on is crucial for your safety. Here are some key indicators of an ongoing chimney fire:

  • Unusual Roaring Sound: One of the most distinctive signs of a chimney fire is the sound it produces. It can be compared to the noise of a freight train or a low-flying airplane. This is caused by the intense burning of creosote and other flammable materials inside the chimney.
  • Flames or Dark Smoke from the Chimney: In some cases, you may actually see flames shooting out of the top of your chimney. Alternatively, dark, dense smoke may billow from the chimney. This is a clear indication of an active chimney fire.
  • Strong, Hot Smell: Another telltale sign is a powerful and hot smell. This odor is often described as acrid and may resemble the scent of burning plastic or rubber. It’s the result of the chimney’s lining and creosote igniting.
  • Vibrations or Rumbling: If you’re near the fireplace or chimney, you might feel vibrations or rumbling. This is caused by the turbulence and pressure created by the fire inside the chimney. It can sometimes even be strong enough to be felt through the walls.

Once you’ve identified these signs, it’s crucial to take immediate action to address the chimney fire. Ignoring these signs or delaying action can lead to significant damage and pose a serious risk to your safety and property.

How Long Does It Take to Put Out a Chimney Fire?

Dealing with a chimney fire is a critical situation that demands a clear understanding of various factors that influence how long it takes to extinguish the fire. These factors encompass aspects related to the fire itself, the available firefighting equipment, the timeliness of response, and the condition of the chimney. Below, we explore each of these factors in detail:

Fire Intensity

Table: Classification of Chimney Fire Intensity

Fire IntensityCharacteristics
SmallLimited to a small area, slow-burning
ModerateSpreading moderately within the chimney
IntenseExtending into the house structure, high flames
  • Small Fires: Small, slow-burning chimney fires are typically easier to control and extinguish quickly. They are often confined to a small section of the chimney, making them more manageable.
  • Moderate Fires: Fires that are moderately intense may involve a larger portion of the chimney, requiring more effort to control and extinguish.
  • Intense Fires: When a chimney fire extends into the house structure and exhibits high flames, it becomes a significant challenge to handle. Extinguishing such intense fires can be time-consuming and may necessitate professional assistance.

Firefighting Equipment

Table: Types of Firefighting Equipment and Their Effectiveness

EquipmentEffectiveness in Extinguishing Chimney Fires
Chimney Fire ExtinguisherHighly effective for chimney fires
Bucket of SandUseful for smothering small chimney fires
Class A Fire ExtinguisherGeneral-purpose, effective for smaller fires
Fire BlanketEffective for small, contained chimney fires
  • Chimney Fire Extinguisher: A specialized tool designed for chimney fires, it can significantly reduce the time required to control the fire, particularly for moderate to intense fires.
  • Bucket of Sand: While a basic tool, a bucket of sand can be effective for smothering small chimney fires. It works by cutting off the fire’s oxygen supply.
  • Class A Fire Extinguisher: A general-purpose fire extinguisher can be useful for smaller chimney fires. Although not specialized, it can still help contain the fire.
  • Fire Blanket: Useful for small, contained chimney fires, a fire blanket can be used to smother flames and reduce the fire’s intensity.

Quick Response

  • Timeliness of Response: Responding promptly upon recognizing a chimney fire is paramount. Early intervention can prevent the fire from spreading further into the chimney or the house. This quick response can significantly reduce the time and effort required to extinguish the fire.

Chimney Condition

Table: Impact of Chimney Condition on Fire Management

Chimney ConditionInfluence on Fire Duration
Well-Maintained ChimneyReduced risk of severe fires, easier to manage
Creosote BuildupIncreased fire intensity, prolongs extinguishing
  • Well-Maintained Chimney: A chimney that has been regularly maintained and cleaned is less likely to experience a severe fire. Cleaning helps reduce the buildup of creosote, a highly flammable substance, making the chimney easier to manage during a fire.
  • Creosote Buildup: Conversely, a chimney with significant creosote buildup can fuel a more intense fire, making it challenging to extinguish. Removing creosote buildup from the chimney is a time-consuming process that may prolong firefighting efforts.

Immediate Actions to Take

A hand holding a phone with '911' displayed on the screen

Responding promptly and correctly is crucial for minimizing risks and damage. Let’s delve deeper into each step you should take when suspecting a chimney fire.

Call 911 Immediately

A chimney fire is a serious emergency that requires professional intervention. The fire department has the equipment and expertise to handle chimney fires safely.

  • Clearly state your address and provide details about the situation to the 911 operator.
  • Mention if anyone in your household has mobility issues or health concerns that require special attention during evacuation.

Evacuate Everyone from the House

The safety of all occupants is paramount. Chimney fires can lead to smoke and toxic fumes, which pose severe health risks.

  • Designate a meeting point outside the home, away from the fire’s vicinity, to ensure accountability of all occupants.
  • Ensure that everyone is wearing appropriate clothing for the weather, especially during cold seasons.

Close Doors and Air Intakes

Reducing the fire’s oxygen supply is crucial in controlling and potentially extinguishing the chimney fire.

  • Explain to all household members the importance of keeping doors closed as they evacuate.
  • For homes with forced air heating systems, shut down the furnace to prevent the circulation of air through the chimney.
  • Close any dampers or vents connected to the chimney to block airflow.

Use a Fire Extinguisher if Available

If you have a fire extinguisher readily accessible, it can be a valuable tool for tackling a chimney fire in its early stages.

  • Ensure that you and your family members know the location of fire extinguishers in your home and how to operate them.
  • Fire extinguishers should be rated for Class A fires, which include ordinary combustibles such as wood and paper.

Table: Using a Fire Extinguisher

1. Pull the pinThis breaks the tamper seal and allows you to discharge the extinguisher.
2. Aim at the base of the fireDirect the extinguisher nozzle toward the lowest point of the fire, where it’s burning most intensely.
3. Squeeze the handleThis releases the extinguishing agent.
4. Sweep from side to sideUse sweeping motions while discharging the extinguisher to cover a wider area effectively.

Avoid Using Water Unless as a Last Resort

Why: Water can be a dangerous choice when dealing with chimney fires due to the potential risks it poses.

  • Avoid using water from hoses or buckets, as it can lead to steam formation, causing pressure to build up within the chimney.
  • Steam can result in chimney explosions or further damage.
  • Only consider using water if the situation worsens, and you have no other options. Even then, do so cautiously and from a safe distance.

Additional Tips

  • Stay Calm: Panic can exacerbate the situation. Try to remain as calm as possible throughout the process.
  • Do Not Leave the Fire Unattended: Even if you’ve taken initial steps to address the fire, it’s crucial not to leave it unattended until professionals arrive and confirm that it’s fully extinguished.
  • Keep a Safe Distance: Maintain a safe distance from the chimney to avoid smoke inhalation and potential falling debris.
  • Inform the Fire Department: Provide the 911 operator with essential information, such as your location, the situation’s details, and any other pertinent information that may help them respond effectively.

Preventative Measures for Chimney Fires

Before we delve into specific preventative measures, it’s essential to understand why chimney fire prevention is vital. Chimney fires occur when the creosote buildup inside the chimney ignites. Creosote is a highly flammable substance that forms as a byproduct of burning wood. Once ignited, a chimney fire can reach extremely high temperatures, potentially causing structural damage to your chimney, igniting nearby combustible materials, and even leading to a house fire.

Let’s start by providing an overview of the key preventative measures, which we will explore in detail:

Preventative MeasureDescription
Regular Chimney CleaningAt least once a year to remove creosote buildup and inspect for issues.
Use Seasoned WoodBurn properly dried and aged wood to reduce creosote production.
Install a Chimney CapPrevent animal intrusion and debris from entering the chimney.
Inspect for DamageRegularly check for cracks and other damage that can pose fire hazards.
Burn Small, Hot FiresOpt for small, hot fires rather than large, smoldering ones to minimize creosote buildup.

Regular Chimney Cleaning

Cleaning your chimney on a regular basis is the best way to prevent chimney fires in your house. Creosote builds up in chimneys and causes many chimney fires. The accumulation of creosote inside a chimney makes it more vulnerable to a fire. Chimney sweeps are trained professionals who can safely remove creosote and inspect the chimney for possible fire hazards.

Use Seasoned Wood

The type of wood used in your fireplace or wood-burning stove significantly influences chimney fire risk. Seasoned wood, which has been properly dried and aged, offers several advantages:

  • It burns hotter, resulting in more efficient combustion and less creosote production.
  • Seasoned wood ignites more easily, reducing the chances of creosote accumulation.
  • Green or damp wood not only produces more creosote but also results in a less efficient fire, increasing the risk of chimney fires.

Install a Chimney Cap

Installing a chimney cap is a simple yet highly effective preventative measure. Chimney caps serve multiple purposes:

  • Preventing Animal Intrusion: Caps act as barriers, keeping birds, squirrels, and other animals from entering your chimney. Animal intrusion can lead to blockages or nests, which pose fire hazards.
  • Debris Prevention: They block leaves, twigs, and other debris from entering the chimney, preventing potential ignition.

Chimney caps are readily available and can be installed by a professional or as a DIY project.

Inspect for Damage

Regularly inspecting your chimney for damage is crucial for identifying potential fire hazards. Here are some key points to consider:

  • Cracks: Cracks in the chimney’s masonry can allow heat and sparks to escape, potentially igniting nearby combustible materials.
  • Loose Bricks or Stones: Loose or deteriorating bricks or stones in the chimney can create pathways for fire to spread.
  • Damaged Flue Liner: A damaged or deteriorating flue liner can increase the risk of a chimney fire.

If you notice any of these issues, it’s essential to address them promptly by hiring a professional chimney inspector or mason to perform repairs.

Burn Small, Hot Fires

The way you use your fireplace or wood-burning stove can also impact chimney fire risk. Burning small, hot fires is not only more efficient but also safer. Here are some tips for achieving efficient and safe fires:

  • Use Dry Firewood: As mentioned earlier, seasoned wood burns more efficiently and produces less creosote.
  • Avoid Overloading the Fireplace: Don’t overcrowd the firebox with too much wood. Leave adequate space for airflow and proper combustion.
  • Use Proper Kindling: Start fires with small pieces of dry kindling to ignite the wood quickly.
  • Maintain Adequate Ventilation: Ensure that your chimney damper is open and functioning correctly to allow for proper airflow.

Post-Fire Actions

After determining how long does it take to put out a chimney fire and successfully doing so, it’s essential to consider the aftermath. Here are crucial steps to take in a structured format:

  • Chimney Inspection: Schedule a professional chimney inspection. Ensure the inspector thoroughly examines the chimney’s interior and exterior for any signs of damage or weaknesses. It’s crucial to identify any issues that may have contributed to the fire or were caused by it.
  • Chimney Cleaning: Clean the chimney to remove any remaining creosote or debris. Creosote buildup is a common cause of chimney fires, so a thorough cleaning is essential to prevent future incidents. Consider hiring a certified chimney sweep for this task, as they have the expertise and tools required for effective cleaning.
  • Damage Assessment and Repair: Assess and repair any damages to the chimney structure, flue liner, or masonry. Even if the fire was contained, the intense heat could have caused structural weaknesses that need immediate attention to ensure the chimney’s safety and functionality.
  • Safety Review: Review safety protocols with all household members to ensure future prevention. Emphasize the importance of regular chimney maintenance, proper use of the fireplace or wood stove, and the significance of having smoke detectors and fire extinguishers readily available. Create a fire safety plan for the household and practice it regularly.


The question, how long does it take to put out a chimney fire, has no fixed answer. The duration varies based on several factors, including the fire’s intensity and the immediate actions taken. Always prioritize safety, take preventive measures, and ensure regular chimney maintenance. Remember, while a fireplace is a source of comfort, it demands respect and caution. Stay safe and keep the flames where they belong.


How long does it take to put out a chimney fire?

The time varies based on the intensity, but immediate action and professional intervention can help extinguish it faster.

Can I use water to put out a chimney fire?

It’s not recommended. Water can produce steam and cause a chimney explosion.

How often should I clean my chimney?

At least once a year, especially if you use your fireplace regularly.