An Ounce of Prevention: Old Houses and Fire Hazards

By: Conrad Neuf , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Inspection, Old Houses, Old House Construction, Old House Musings, In The News

I burned a large pile of brush in my backyard a couple of weekends ago. The pile had been accumulating for several years and had gotten so large I had to spend an afternoon separating most of it to get down to a safe and manageable starting point. In addition to the usual tree limbs, leaves, and cut up logs from a tree that had fallen were some parts of a sleeping porch I had taken down last spring that couldn’t be reused due to rot and insect damage.

Old Houses Can Burn Quickly  photo from beaumontenterprise.com

Old Houses Can Burn Quickly photo from beaumontenterprise.com

I called the local volunteer fire department to let them know what I was doing and set the small pile I was starting with on fire about 2:30 in the afternoon. By around 6:00 p.m. all I had left were smoldering ashes. I have burned brush many times over the years, but I had never had a pile that large burn that fast and with so much heat. Every time I threw a couple of boards from the sleeping porch onto the fire, it flared up and I could feel the heat singeing my face and arms; I have no doubt that the reason the fire burned even the large logs so quickly was because of the dried and aged wood of my old house.

Do a Fire Prevention Inspection on Your Old House

Fires and old houses don’t mix very well as old homes in Beaumont, Texas, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, discovered this year. The 100 year old home in Texas was in the process of being restored and even had a sprinkler system installed, but sometimes the framing style used in the old days can makeĀ it easier for a fire to spread quickly.

Make Sure Your Smoke Alarm WORKS  photo from pressofatlanticcity.com

Make Sure Your Smoke Alarm WORKS photo from pressofatlanticcity.com

The time is rapidly approaching when fireplaces will be burning and space heaters are going to be plugged in; it’s important that you take time now to do all you can to make sure your home is as safe as possible from potential fire hazards. I wrote last autumn about old house fire safety, and a few items are important enough to repeat for this season and every season:

  • If you use your wood burning fireplace or stove on a regular basis, get it inspected before using it this year.
  • Inspect all space heater cords before use and don’t overload old house electrical circuits.
  • Don’t leave heaters running while unattended or when everyone is asleep.
  • Make sure you have smoke detectors and that they WORK; they may be the only warning your family receives.

Take some time in the near future to give your old house a thorough fire prevention inspection; you’ll sleep better at night knowing you did.


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  1. 4 Responses  to “An Ounce of Prevention: Old Houses and Fire Hazards”

  2. Aug 29, 2011
    Space heaters are vicious...especially here in Chicago. Smoke Detectors AND CO2 are a must... Great article...
  3. Jeremy
    Aug 29, 2011
    Fires, on old and new houses alike, can be caused so easily. Friend of mine had a candle lit in his house and there was an earthquake and the candle got knocked over and lit something on fire. Entire house gone, and it was built in the 80's.
  4. Mae
    Aug 29, 2011
    Precautions should be taken to prevent burn piles from developing into raging infernos. Maintaining brush piles 30 feet and beyond from structures, away from flammable materials and trees is often overlooked. Seeking help from an architect or engineer specializing in historical building preservation while doing a fire inspection can add peace of mind.
  5. Jonny
    Aug 29, 2011
    People under estimate the power of a burn pile. Even a small one can get away from you if the wind picks up. The recent fires in Boulder, CO prove this, as a few hundred homes were torched because of somebody's brush pile.