A photo from a recent house fire shows damage caused by an improperly installed chimney. (Submitted photo)

Yukon chimneys may have been incorrectly installed for decades, posing fire risk

‘This is not going to be an isolated incident’

The Yukon government and City of Whitehorse are warning anyone who had an EXCEL chimney for woodstoves installed over the last 20 years to make sure it was done correctly or potentially risk starting a house fire.

Yukon Fire Marshal James Paterson said the Whitehorse Fire Department responded to a chimney fire recently that was caused by the improper installation of the chimney approximately seven years ago.

Officials are concerned more have been installed this way putting more homes at risk.

“Basically what we’re saying is we believe that this has been installed this way for the past potentially 20 years so this is not going to be an isolated incident,” he said.

The risk is a result of the improper installation method, not the product, Paterson said. A contractor installed the chimney with a firestop. Firestops are designed to stop the spread of heat from one area of a house to another, but are not supposed to be used with the EXCEL chimney, Paterson said.

“In theory, it seemed like a good idea, but what it actually did was it trapped the heat into a certain area and over time that hot air radiated outwards towards the bracing that held the chimney in place and wore it down,” Paterson said.

“Ultimately, over a period of about seven years, it caught fire.”

This EXCEL variety of chimney was not designed to have a firestop, Paterson said

“The chimney was engineered to be able to have the radiant heat come out into a one inch air space which was designed by the EXCEL chimney company and then radiate up and outward outside of the house.”

But the contractor believed, “and had been taught, over the last 20 years we believe,” that the addition of a fire stop was necessary, Paterson said.

Installing the firestop goes against the manufacturer’s instructions, Paterson said.

“But having gone through the EXCEL chimney installation instructions several times, I can see how it would have been missed, it’s not specifically clear on whether or not that’s required.”

The press release suggested homeowners not use their heating system until they have confirmed that it was installed correctly.

Paterson acknowledged that might not be possible during the city’s current frigid weather.

If a homeowner has to use wood heat before the system can be checked out, Paterson recommends having a fire extinguisher nearby, making sure smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working.

“If you have those fail stops then if something does happen then we’re optimistic that the individual will be able to handle it,” he said.

“We don’t want people to stop using their fire places at this time of year especially when it’s this cold. But at the same time we want people to have an elevated level of awareness of the dangers here because we’re just not sure.”

Only homes with an EXCEL chimney that goes through the living area of a house are potentially at risk, Paterson said.

“If you live in a bungalow with a single floor house, you’ve got an EXCEL chimney and it’s just venting out through the roof, you’ve got no problem. It’s not an issue.”

If the chimney is going up from the basement onto a main floor, for example, that would be a “red flag,” he said.

Homeowners who have an EXCEL system are being advised to contact the people who installed it to see that it was installed correctly without a firestop.

If homeowners don’t know who installed their system, they should call any local company and have it checked out, Paterson said.

The governments are working on pulling all the permits that would have been required to install these type of systems.

A firestop is not visible just by looking at the chimney. The improper installation technique is not detectable through the regular inspection process for chimneys because it is concealed by the required radiation shield, according to the governments’ press release.

Doug Thorseth, the city’s building inspections supervisor, said inspectors often can’t see whether a firestop has been installed when they come to look at a home.

“Not unless they were there at that specific point in time and often times we’re not.”

Paterson said inspectors rely on the contractors. “We rely on the fact that they know what they’re doing and they can follow these instructions because they install them.”

Thorseth said his department is reviewing its policies and procedures.

The contractor who installed the chimney that caused the recent fire is not being named. Thorseth said it’s possible that more than one contractor has been installing the chimneys this way.

No one was hurt in the recent fire. The homeowner had the appropriate fire extinguisher and was able to put it out herself. It could have been much worse, Paterson said.

“The results could have been catastrophic in this particualar case. We were lucky in the sense that the homeowner was diligent.”

Whitehorse homeowners looking for more information can contact the city’s building inspections department at (867) 668-8346. Outside of Whitehorse, homeowners can contact the Government of Yukon’s building safety and standards branch toll free at 1-800-661-0408, extension 5741.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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