Officials are urging New Canaan homeowners to ensure the ash pits below their fireplaces are emptied regularly and safely—as well as installed properly—following a house fire last week on Brooks Road that was ignited due to improper design.
Fire officials responded on the afternoon of March 2 to a two-alarm fire at a Brooks Road home. It had been ignited in a crawl space below a hearth extension for the fireplace in the living room, according to Fire Marshal Paul Payne.
“What had happened, the fireplace had an ash dump in the fire box and the ashes dumped down below the chimney into the foundation area, which was exterior to the house,” Payne told members of the Fire Commission during their regular meeting Tuesday night.
“Well, the smoke and the fire was in the crawl space and when I got in there with the guys, they were just finishing up,” he said during the meeting, held via videoconference. “It just didn’t look right. I should have been looking at all cinderblock and I wasn’t. I was looking at a pressure-treated sill plate, a piece of plywood bottom on the hearth extension and a framing member that was holding up the hearth extension before it was poured. So I asked the guys to keep working on the framing member until they got through it so I could see what was on the other side and I was hoping to see—because this is the separation from the house to the ash dump on the outside of the house—so I was hoping, when that framing lumber was gone, I would be looking at solid concrete, which would be the proper separation. And when they got through that framing member, we were looking right into the ash dump. So what had happened, over 20 years of that ash dump filling with ash, it finally filled up to the level of these framing members, and the people had had a fire approximately four or five days before, the housekeeper came in, properly disposed of all the ashes down the ash dump.”
The ashes settled against the framing member and smoldered there for a few days before finally catching fire, Payne said.
“So, in this case, this was improperly done,” he said.
Commission Chair Jack Horner asked whether homeowners with similar ash dumps below their fire places should empty them regularly. Payne said that they should be cleaned out before the ashes pile hire than the release door, which is usually in the basement or on the exterior of a home.
“Let them sit there until spring or summer, do it in the summer, make sure everything is out,” Payne said. “Because I think another problem, and [Fire] Chief [Jack Hennessey] correct me if I’m wrong, but if there is a finished basement, there is usually an access panel where that ash dump is, and what I can see happening is if people are taking hot embers out of that and they fall off the shovel, they fall behind the wall. We kind of had a similar issue over on Whitney [Avenue] earlier in the season.”
Hennessey said that the Fire Department has seen situations where a finished basement is built around the ash pit door.
“We’ve had some problems where the door might’ve been ajar, the door might’ve fallen off, and hot embers fall into walls and cause problems,” he said. “It’s happened more than once.”
In this case, Payne said he met with the homeowner and a chimney contractor, who ultimately was scheduled to get a permit this week and make repairs on the Brooks Road home before there’s another fire.