Wood stoves were blamed for three house fires in eight days that killed one woman and injured another this month in Montezuma County.
Cortez Fire Protection District Chief Jay Balfour said wood stoves were a common ignition source for house fires but that three in a week was uncommon. He blamed all three fires on a combination of wood stove installation and maintenance problems as well as “unforeseen events.”
A trio of firesThe first fire this month started about 8:15 p.m. on Nov. 7 in the 5000 block of County Road 25. A Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office incident report states a mobile home was fully engulfed when a deputy arrived. According to the report, a neighbor saw the fire, ran to the mobile home, turned off the propane, went in the front door and saw a woman sleeping on the couch with a blanket next to the wood stove. He carried her out of the mobile home.
The woman was transported to Southwest Memorial Hospital with burns on her hands and face, then flown to the UCHealth Burn Clinic in Denver. Balfour said she was recovering.
After the fire was knocked down, the incident report states Balfour noted that the heaviest charring occurred around the wood stove and vent pipe. The vent pipe was assembled with screws and had several gaps where pieces of metal connected. The report states the stove was not installed professionally and Balfour said he does not believe there was a smoke detector in the mobile home.
The second fire began about 3:15 a.m. Nov. 12 on North Edith Street in Cortez. The residents escaped the home, and no injuries were reported. According to Balfour, the residents had installed a wood stove and then later installed a metal roof, but did not cut a hole for the stove’s vent pipe.
The third fire destroyed a home on the 7000 block of County Road 25 on Thursday night. The call came in about 11:11 p.m. Homeowner Penny Livingston escaped the home but suffered fatal injuries when she went back inside to rescue a pet. She was flown to the UCHealth Burn Clinic in Denver and pronounced dead on Friday morning.
Balfour said the investigation suggested that the fire originated on the outside of the home. He said the residents were diligent about cleaning the vent pipe, but the vent was enclosed in a wooden chimney. He said he believes the vent pipe was damaged and, since it was enclosed, the residents did not know of its flaws.
He said it an ember likely escaped the damaged vent pipe and set the chimney on fire. The wood stove, on the lower level of the home, then ignited a nearby pile of wood and the wooden deck above.
Preventive measures encouragedBalfour speculated that people with wood stoves have been burning wood for at least a few weeks, and ashes likely have built up. Ashes can smolder in a wood stove for up to a week, and fires can ignited after residents put their ashes in a paper bag on a wooden deck.
Balfour said all wood stoves should be installed by professionals, and existing wood stoves should be inspected by certified chimney sweeps, chimney inspectors and inspectors. The Cortez Fire Protection District does not recommend specific inspectors.
He said improperly installed vent pipes are the most common issue with wood stoves such as enclosed venting like the fires at the mobile home and County Road 25.
“Those actually tend to be somewhat of a nemesis for us because we’ve seen a number of those where they – out of sight, out of mind – and so if there’s damage to the pipe you don’t see it,” Balfour said.
If a structure is on fire and everyone is out, he said, it’s not worth a human life to return.
“No matter what, please, I plead with our citizens,” Balfour said. “If they’re in a building that catches on fire and get out, don’t ever go back in for any reason.”