Buildups of soot in fireplaces, wood stoves and other heating appliances can mean big trouble for homeowners.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1992, Bob Allison wanted to get the fire blazing in his fireplace for his dinner guests.
So the Lawrence resident left the dampers open a little bit wider than they're supposed to be and built the fire up fast. Suddenly, he heard a roar like a train was passing through his fireplace as the flue caught on fire.
By closing the air-tight dampers, he was able quench most of the blaze. But the lining of the flue was cracked, which cost him $1,000 to have it rebuilt.
Allison hadn't had his fireplace at his home at 518 Kasold Drive cleaned for a few years. A buildup of creosote and soot caused the fire.
"I knew it could happen," Allison said. "But I didn't think it would happen to me."
Many people don't give a thought to the condition of the equipment that heats their homes in the winter. But since the beginning of 1992, 38 fires in Lawrence homes and businesses have been sparked by ill-kept heating appliances, resulting in an estimated $213,180 in damage, according to figures from the Lawrence fire department.
Fireplaces have been the cause of 12 out-of-control fires. Central heating units, water heaters, local heating units and portable heaters are responsible for the other 26.
Fire Marshal Rich Barr of the Lawrence fire department said most heating equipment -- gas furnaces, wood stoves and fireplaces -- uses an open flame, which can create a hazard when the equipment isn't properly maintained.
For example, when covers on gas furnaces aren't placed correctly, the flame may be exposed, which might ignite a combustible item placed close to it, he said. He said that misplaced covers also can cause the furnace to vent improperly and emit carbon dioxide.
Michel' Philipp, spokeswoman for Western Resources, KPL's parent company, said furnaces should be checked by a certified heating contractor once a year.
"You need to schedule a tune-up, just like you would for your car," she said. Contractors will check whether filters need to be cleaned or replaced, the pilot light is operating correctly, the burners are lit and the thermostat is working properly.
Allen Clough, owner of 20th Century Chimney Sweep, said fireplaces that are not properly maintained can have a buildup of creosote, a residue of smoke and soot that can ignite.
The National Fire Protection Assn. suggests having a regularly-used fireplace inspected once a year and cleaned as needed.
Clough said when he inspected a fireplace, he looks for cracks in the fire box, smoke chamber and flue. If these have cracks, fire can get to the wood construction of the house, he said. He also inspects the cap of the chimney to make sure it is keeping out rain, debris and animals.
Fire Marshal Barr said common sense was the most important factor to keeping a home safe from heating-equipment fires.
"My concern is the occupant-caused fires," he said. "Sometimes, you have people tossing their coat next to the fireplace."