The rise in cosy log fires

As the temperatures continue to remain low and with the ongoing cost of living crisis, we know that more people are seeking alternative ways to heat their homes, such as wood burners and coal. 

To put some perspective on the numbers, there are around 28 million homes in the UK, of which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) estimate 6.9% have wood burners installed and another 3.3% use coal to heat their homes. Interestingly 46% were from the highest AB social grades, those least likely to be affected by the current cost of living crisis who tend to burn wood as a ‘lifestyle’ choice for aesthetic reasons or as ‘tradition’. However, that leaves over half of such homes that may have cost of living concerns and may be older, less affluent, in a rural location, or have no other heating, burning to save money or supplement other forms of heating.

The Government has enacted various restrictions on the type of fuel available and new installations early in 2022. I’ll park that however for the moment and focus primarily on the potential fire and safety issues for the homeowner.

Fire risk

Historically fires in the UK have been steadily decreasing, from 228,411 in 2010/11, to 152,608 in 2021/22. Chimney fires also reduced from 7,686 (3.4%) to 2,608 (1.7) over the same period. It’s recognised that the period from January to March is the peak season for chimney fires, as 40% of chimney fires tend to take place over those three months therefore coinciding with increased use. It now seems reasonable to assume that in view of the increasing use of open and wood burning fires, this winter we may now experience an increase in domestic fires rather than an ongoing reduction.

Chimney fires

The job of a chimney is to expel the exhaust fumes and substances given off when fuel such as wood or coals are burnt. These substances rise up the chimney and cool down, condensation occurs and forms a residue creosote, a tar substance that sticks to the chimney. It is highly combustible and in sufficient quantities can catch alight within the chimney.

Before lighting up for the first time it’s worth checking:

  • If the chimney had been capped when it was originally decommissioned
  • The condition of the flue, chimney and in the loft for smoke from cracks in the chimney walls (an older one could be dilapidated increasing the risk of fire or fumes spreading)
  • If the chimney was lined or has a pre-fabricated, or metal lining and that all of the seams and joints are in good order
  • If the chimney needed sweeping (dirty chimneys cause chimney fires)
  • The thickness of the hearth and any current building regulations applicable
  • Any air vents or air bricks.

Thatched homes 

For those homeowners using open fires in thatched properties certain fire detection and prevention precautions are even more important and often are stipulated as a condition of cover. For example:

  • Smoke detectors
  • Monitored fire alarm systems 
  • Fire blankets and fire extinguishers
  • A steel liner must be fitted to the chimney flue
  • Spark arresters must be fitted to the top of the chimney to prevent fires caused by sparks falling onto the thatch
  • Chimney swept at least once a year or twice if wood is burnt on an open fire, to avoid the build-up of soot deposits that can ignite within the chimney.

Additional considerations when lighting up 

  • Legislation changes imposed strict standards on the type of fuel which can be burnt and some wood burners are far less environmentally friendly than others
  • Use seasoned woods only (dryness is more important than the type of wood used), moisture content should be under 20% - the lower the better
  • Build smaller, hotter fires that burn better and produce less smoke
  • Watch out for sparks, and furniture, carpets or clothes near the fire - a fireguard is useful to keep the fire contained to where you want it to be
  • Avoid burning cardboard boxes, paper or rubbish as these can all increase the build-up of flammable residues in your chimney
  • Keep logs away from solid fuel burners – radiated heat can cause them to burn
  • Dispose of ashes in a metal bucket stored outside, not in plastic bins.

Ongoing maintenance

Like all heating devices, an annual inspection or service should be anticipated, including ensuring that all chimneys and flue-ways are clean and free from debris and in full working order. A blocked or defective chimney may cause chimney fires or even carbon monoxide poisoning, so we’d recommend installing a smoke detector on each floor of the house and a carbon monoxide detector near the appliance itself.

Sweeping* should take into account how often the fire is used and what is being burned as follows:

  • Wood – every three months
  • Smokeless fuels – at least once a year
  • Bituminous coal – at least once a year
  • Oil – once a year
  • Gas – once a year

*To find a certified chimney sweep, or for more information on chimney fire safety, please visit:

  • National Association of Chimney Sweeps (NACS)
  • Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps
  • Association of Professional Independent Chimney Sweeps (APICS)

Nothing really beats snuggling up to a living fire in your home. By using the most appropriate fuel and taking the right advice together with making some fire safety precautions, the additional fire risks can be well managed. The main problem faced by insurers will be among the DIY installers and those homeowners who are desperate to save money this winter, who may well be tempted to cut corners on installation and ongoing essential maintenance aspects in connection with operating an open or log burning fire.