Rachael Ray's house fire highlights chimney dangers: How to make sure yours is safe

The fire at the celebrity chef's home is a reminder that fireplaces and chimneys can be dangerous. As fall and winter approach, follow these tips to keep your home safe.
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/ Source: TODAY

A massive fire that destroyed Rachael Ray’s New York home in August was started in the chimney, according to the celebrity chef. The sad news comes as a reminder to homeowners about the dangers of chimneys as fall begins and cold weather approaches.

Ray told "Entertainment Tonight" the fire started after the fireplace "burped," causing the roof to catch on fire. The house in Lake Luzerne, about an hour north of Albany, was only 15 years old, she said, and they had the chimney cleaned twice a year.

“Basically the fireplace burped, and when it burped onto the roof, the roof lit, and just the way the day was and the weather, it just went up in kind of no time, but it burned for a long time," she explained. “It caught again the next day for a short time.”

Russ Dimmitt, director of education for the Chimney Safety Institute of America, told TODAY that the “burp” Ray describes could have been caused by creosote — the deposits that are left in your chimney after you burn wood.

“If you have a chimney fire, what happens is that creosote is very flammable as it burns,” he explained. “It can burn so violently that it will actually shoot some creosote out top and it might land on the roof.”

Dimmitt said that with chimney fires like Ray’s, there's lot of investigating to be done to determine the actual cause. But it does highlight the dangers associated with having a fireplace at home.

Fireplaces can be cozy, but they also come with dangers and responsibility.Cavan Images / Getty Images

According to data provided to TODAY by the National Fire Protection Association, fireplaces or chimneys were involved in an average of 16,030 fires per year from 2012-2016, with an average of 40 civilian deaths, 80 civilian injuries, and $256 million in direct property damage annually.

It's scary to think about, but there are steps you can take right now to help prevent a chimney fire at your own home.

Have it professionally inspected and cleaned

The NFPA reports that the leading factor contributing to home heating fires is failure to clean the equipment. The organization recommends having your chimney inspected and cleaned every year by a qualified professional who can check to make sure it’s structurally sound and in good working order.

Make sure the wood you burn is dry

Never put wet wood in the fireplace — burning it can create more flammable material deposits on the inside of the chimney.Johner Images / Getty Images

Burning wet wood can create more flammable material deposits (creosote) on the inside of the chimney, Dimmitt explained. That’s why it’s important to make sure the wood you use is dry. “The ideal moisture content for wood to burn is between 15-25%,” he said. “If you just go cut wood, it’s going to be 50% moisture content or higher. So in order to dry that, you really have to split it.”

To split wood, cut it lengthwise so more surface area is exposed, and do so at least six months before you use it, he advised. Also, don’t put anything else in the fireplace except for wood.

“No Christmas trees,” Dimmitt said, adding that doing so can result in a massive house fire.

Make sure you have a chimney cap and take other precautions

Chimney caps are designed to keep animals out, said Dimmitt. “It’s possible (they’ll still come in), but they’ve got to really want to get in there,” he said.

Without a chimney cap, animals can nest inside. When you light a fire, the nesting material can ignite a chimney fire.

Other things you’ll want to ensure: Make sure there are no branches or trees within 15 feet of the top of your chimney, always keep your hearth area clean and void of combustibles, use a sturdy screen to prevent sparks from flying into the room, and never leave the fire unattended.

Know the indications of a chimney fire

“You might hear loud cracking or popping noises,” Dimmitt said. “There might be dense smoke coming out of your chimney. There might be a hot smell — everyone knows that hot smell, although we can’t really describe it.”

Gas fireplaces can also create problems

“It’s possible for someone to think, ‘Well, I don’t have wood so I don’t have a problem to worry about,’” Dimmitt said. “That’s actually not true.”

Your furnace or water heater could be vented into your chimney, and if the chimney is blocked for any reason, carbon monoxide could be coming into your home.

“With a gas burning appliance in particular you don’t have any smoke so you may not know you have a problem,” Dimmitt said. That’s why it’s important to have both carbon monoxide and smoke detectors in your home, he added.