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The dangers of wood ashes

It's that time of year again when we have to clean out the wood stove or fireplace.  If you're like me, you wait till the ashes are so deep that they are almost coming out of the wood stove when you open the door.  I also find that my stove burns a little better with a layer of ashes on the bottom of the stove chamber.    Regardless, at some point you'll need to clean it out.  

What I wanted to point out is that you wouldn't believe how long embers will last in an unused fireplace or wood stove.  What happens is you can have un-burned fuel (charcoal) still glowing inside a pile of ashes long after the fire is over. You won't see it because it's buried in the ash.  What's even more amazing is that these embers can still be glowing and hot in a stove or fireplace that hasn't been active in over five days! 

This mean that you must be very careful when removing ashes from your firebox or fireplace.  Here are a few stories with tragic results which were a result of careless handling of ashes. 

In 2011, a family in Connecticut was celebrating Christmas eve when one of the people in the house removed the ashes from the fireplace, placed them in a paper bag and put them in the mudroom.   Tragically, the ashes started a fire in the mudroom that quickly enveloped the house.   The fire ended up killing all of their young children and also their grandparents on Christmas eve. 

Another story came to me from a friend who is a fireman.   He told me about a woman who cleaned out her ashes and placed them in a metal container.   She then took the metal container and placed it on the back porch.   The porch had about 18" of snow on it at the time and she placed the ash container on top of the snow.   Hours later, a smoke detector in the house went off.   She didn't smell or see smoke and figured it was a false alarm.   It wasn't until may hours later that the firehouse got a call from the same house.  As it turned out, the ash bucket had hot embers in it. The bucket melted through the 18" of snow on the deck and came to rest on the wooden deck. The smoke detector went off the first time because the deck was smoldering from the hot ash container on the wooden deck.  Unfortunately, the owner ignored the alarm not knowing the ashes were starting her deck on fire, even through it had 18" of snow on it.   Over time, the bottom of the deck ignited and the fire slowly worked its way toward the house.   By the time the owner realized there was a problem, the fire worked it's way through the ledger under the deck and entered the basement.  When the firemen arrived after getting the call, the ceiling of the whole basement was engulfed.   All of this happened from ashes placed in a metal container and left on 18" of snow outside!   If you didn't know any better, you'd think this was a safe way to dispose of ashes.  Who would think ashes placed in a metal container on top of snow outside your house would end up engulfing the house in a fire a few hours later. 

I mention these tragic stories so that you think twice about how to safely remove ashes from your fireplace.    If your not careful, you could make a mistake that could have a tragic consequence.   

To learn about how to safely dispose of ashes in your fireplace, check out a few articles:  here and here

What can we learn from these stories?   

  1. You should always assume the ashes have embers in them which are capable of starting a fire.
  2. Make sure you place the ashes in a metal container with no holes in it (rust holes etc).    
  3. DO NOT place the ashes anywhere in your house.   Place them outside away from anything connected to your house.   
  4. Do not place them near anything combustible.   Make sure there are no leaves near the container that could easily ignite and start a fire.