With the temperature outside hovering around 50 on a recent morning, Clara Gallegos lit a fire in the fireplace in her Yorba Linda home to ward off the chill.
The fireplace warmed up the home all right--a structural defect sparked a blaze that spread to the walls and roof of her one-story stucco home at the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac on Sunny Lane.
Gallegos, 50; her 25-year-old son, Christopher, and his two infant children escaped without injury. But the fire, which started at 10:09 a.m., caused an estimated $10,000 in damage before it could be contained by 16 Orange County firefighters.
Even as Gallegos was trying to put her house back in order, fire officials were warning homeowners throughout the county to check for fireplace hazards during the fall and winter months.
The Christmas holidays are traditionally the worst time for such fires, according to local and national fire officials.
"At this time of the year, people like to get a nice hot corker going, (but) people start throwing anything under the sun in their fireplaces, and it does not take much to set off a fire," said Jamie Haines of the National Fire Protection Assn. in Quincy, Mass.
Burning the wrong materials, such as gift wrappings and discarded Christmas trees, authorities warn, is one major cause of fireplace-related blazes.
Last Christmas Day in Placentia, for example, gift wrappings burned in the fireplace showered the roof of a two-story home with flaming embers and ignited a blaze that caused $200,000 in damage. County fire officials said Kenneth Bemis, his wife and two adult children had just finished unwrapping gifts, and placed the wrappings in the fireplace where they quickly ignited.
Another common cause is emptying smoldering fireplace ashes into a paper or plastic trash container. Last Jan. 10, another Placentia family did just that, placing the ashes in a plastic container in the garage. The ashes rekindled inside the container and started a fire that enveloped the garage and an adjoining bedroom, according to fire officials.
Statistics were not available locally on just how many fires are caused by either defective fireplaces or improperly used fireplaces, although fire officials said the number is considerable.
One indication of the magnitude of the problem comes from Ted Humphrey, owner of Chim-Chim Cheree Chimney Sweep Service in Sunset Beach.
"I run into two dozen homes a year which have had chimney fires because the people haven't cleaned them," said Humphrey, whose business sweeps about 2,000 chimneys in the Orange County-Los Angeles area each year.
Another indication comes from the National Fire Protection Assn., which compiles statistics on the problem. In 1983, the latest period for which figures are available, it calculated that there were 140,600 fires related to wood-burning appliances, including stoves and fireplaces. Those fires claimed 280 lives and caused an estimated $296 million in property losses. Association spokeswoman Haines said fireplaces accounted for roughly one-half those fires.
That was more than double the number in 1978, when the association counted 66,800 fires involving wood-burning appliances.
The group does not have a breakdown on what caused each of those fires, but among the leading causes are burning the wrong materials and squirting gasoline or other flammable liquids on a fire to stoke it up, Haines said.
There are other causes. Failing to have a spark arrester inside the chimney, as required by state law, is considered highly dangerous because of all the dry, shake roofs in Southern California. Capt. Patrick McIntosh of the Orange County Fire Department said spark arresters, made of half-inch iron mesh, are designed to prevent embers from leaving the chimney.
But Patti Range, an Orange County Fire public information officer, said even a spark arrester cannot prevent sparks from flammable materials such as paper, which burns so rapidly that it "just sucks up the chimney."
Using a dirty fireplace is another fire hazard. When wood burns it leaves a buildup of flammable creosote and tar inside a chimney. If not removed, this can create highly volatile conditions.
If the materials catch fire in the chimney, "it sounds like a railroad train coming right down on you," Haines said.
In the North and East, where fireplaces are used on a daily basis in the winter to help keep homes warm, chimney sweeping is needed at least once a year, Haines said.
But in Southern California, where fireplaces are used two or three times a week during the winter, primarily, for aesthetic purposes, Humphrey said chimneys need to be swept about every other year.
The chimneys also need regular inspections. Older homes, particularly, experience the problem of mortar separating from the chimney brick, allowing heat to get through to the frame of the home and possibly cause a fire, Humphrey said.
"Fifty percent of the homes we see have hazards such as mortar missing between bricks," he said.
At Clara Gallegos' home in Yorba Linda, fire inspectors said the problem with her gas fireplace was that there was nothing to keep the gas pipe from touching fake gas logs. Since there was no separation, the heat from the pipe caused the logs to overheat, turn to charcoal and catch fire, inspectors said. This process of overheating the fake logs, which are supposed to be fire-resistant, took place over a period of several years, until they finally caught fire, county fire inspectors said.
Gallegos, a nurse, said she has used the gas to start burning natural logs since she moved into the home four years ago. She said she had just started a fire to burn some pine logs that her son had chopped from a front yard tree when smoke started pouring out the roof and into the garage.
Gallegos said this incident will not deter her from using a fireplace again.
"We've always had fireplaces. We love them. We were brought up in the country with them," she said. "It was just crispy in the morning (the day of the fire), and we were trying to get the chill out of the house."