There are more than 60,000 thatched buildings in the UK and many of these are listed. If a fire starts in a thatched property the results are often devastating, many homes are completely destroyed. These fires are particularly difficult to put out as thatch is designed to repel water.
In a recent thatch fire Oxfordshire Fire & Rescue Service cut breaks in the thatch to reduce fire spread in attempt to allow possessions to be salvaged. This fire was brought under control by 50 fire fighters and Oxfordshire was assisted by Royal Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Services
In addition to the advice fire and rescue services give to all homes, if you are lucky enough to own a thatched property then take some time to make sure you are aware of the additional precautions to prevent fire.
The majority of thatch fires are caused because of faults in the chimney or flue – thought to be about 90%.
You should check the condition of your chimney -if it’s old and many are very old – or poorly maintained, smoke and hot gases can escape into the roof space or directly into the thatch. Look out for staining around chimney breast and black or brown localised deposits on the chimney of roof space. Get the entire chimney checked every three years. The mortar should be good through the entire stack. Make sure your chimney is suitably lined to prevent flue gases leaking.
When your roof is being re-thatched make sure the last added thatch is removed, otherwise you thicken the thatch and increase the insulation around the chimney, it also reduces the height of the chimney above the thatch. Very old thatch can be of archaeological significance so you may need to speak to a conservation officer for advice. Your thatcher should also check areas of the chimney usually covered by the thatch for signs of damage.
Solid Fuel and Wood Burners
If you have a solid fuel or wood burner be extra cautious, they burn at a much higher temperature than a traditional open fire which would also draw cool air from the room up the chimney and mixed with the flue gases which kept their temperature down.
New log burners with sealed units can generate 300 – 600◦C. This heat warms the bricks in the chimney and is transferred to the thatch which holds the heat as it is a great insulator. With regular use the thatch by the chimney can reach 200◦C quite easily. Chimney linings for thatch should be suitable to stops gases from escaping and reduce heat transfer. Such work should only be undertaken by professionals and a good source of advice is HETAS.
Your chimney should be swept regularly – twice a year. This includes if you have a wood burning stove. Soot is a fuel and will burn if it accumulates. In a conventional home this results in a chimney fire – in a thatch this can ignite the roof.
Use seasoned wood to reduce build up and make sure your appliances are checked and serviced annually.
Separating the roof void from the thatch with a fire resistant barrier and spraying the thatch itself with flame retardant coating are other physical measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of fire.
There are things you can do to make sure you have the earliest warning possible of a problem, this can help prevent fires or give you precious time to escape and contact the fire service.
A stovepipe monitor can be fitted to wood burning or solid fuel appliances which monitor the temperature of the flue gasses from the appliance and can warn you to manage the firebox to reduce these temperatures.
Some companies are able to install heat detectors in the thatch at points near the chimney which monitors the temperature and alert a control panel if the thatch is overheating.
Consider fitting a smoke alarm in the loft.Ideally linked to other alarms smoke alarms in the house.
For information and advice about all aspects of owning a thatched property, including fire safety advice visit The Thatch Advice Centre.
If you have a thatched property get in touch with your local fire service. In some areas they will be able to visit and offer you advice for your property. Also it may be worth making them aware that you have a thatch and it may also be helpful for them to know if you have difficult access or limited water supplies.
It is useful for homeowners to know exactly where their property is so make a note or your ordinance survey co-ordinates in case of emergency.