FAIRBANKS - Mitch Flynn remembers the last time there was a dramatic spike in oil prices in Fairbanks.
A former University of Alaska Fairbanks firefighter, Flynn saw a rise in wood stove sales quickly followed by a rise in chimney fires.
"We were going on chimney fires almost daily," he said.
Flynn, now chief of the Steese Area Volunteer Fire Department, worries the same thing could happen again now that fuel oil prices in the Fairbanks area have climbed to $2.60 per gallon.
Ernie Misewicz, a Fairbanks deputy fire marshal and former Fort Wainwright firefighter, recalls what happened when heating oil jumped from about 50 cents to $1 a gallon as the result of the Mideast oil embargo in 1979.
"Everybody was looking for a quick way to solve the heating problem and they said, 'We'll buy wood stoves and chimneys,"' Misewicz said. "People weren't following the rules of cleaning chimneys and making sure they were installed properly. I remember going on a number of chimney-related fires."
Retailers have reported a rush on wood-burning stoves this fall. Firewood has been a hot commodity, selling for at least $150 per cord.
"That's telling me there's going to be an increase in the number of people using wood stoves," said Misewicz. "Our past experience has shown us that when we have an increase in fuel costs, fires as a result of alternative heating methods go up."
One house fire this fall has been attributed to a wood stove.
"We've already briefed our crews to expect an increase in wood stove and (chimney) fires," Flynn said.
Wood stoves are the primary source of heat for many cabins. Firefighters say residents who do not normally burn wood may do so on weekends or evenings to save fuel money.
"We're getting a lot of calls from people who have never burned wood before and people who haven't burned wood for 20 years and want to burn wood this year," said chimney sweep Charlie Whitaker.
The general rule of thumb for cleaning chimneys is that they should be cleaned after about every cord of wood burned, Whitaker said.
Flynn recommends burning seasoned, dry wood. That helps prevent creosote buildup in a chimney, which reduces the chances of a chimney fire.
Creosote is a tar-like residue produced by burning wood that sticks to the sides of chimney and catches fire. The wetter the wood, the more creosote it produces.
"If you burn green wood, you're asking for trouble," he said.
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