Fire safety for thatched buildings

Fires in thatched buildings are not common, however research has shown that the major cause of fires in thatched buildings is heat transfer from the chimney into the thatch. The thatch then reaches its ignition temperature and a roof fire can develop.

Causes

Thatched roofs are always at risk from fire. Once a fire has taken hold in a thatched roof, it will spread rapidly. Some main causes of fire in thatch are:

  • stray sparks from the chimneys, discarded cigarettes and garden bonfires
  • electrical faults
  • lightning affecting the television aerial

Prevention

The thatch is designed to repel water and so for a Fire and Rescue Service this makes it a difficult task to extinguish such fires. Prevention is essential; detection is often too late.

The following fire safety advice is recommended for everyone living in thatched buildings:

  • it is important to insulate the chimney flue to prevent the heat from transferring into the thatch layer, especially when a solid fuel or wood burner is installed as they burn at higher temperatures (300°C to 600°C) than conventional open fires
  • have the chimney swept regularly by a qualified chimney sweep - a chimney in regular use should be swept twice a year
  • don’t burn wet or unseasoned wood as this will lead to a greater build-up of soot deposits in the flue and have the brickwork and rendering checked by a professional builder or qualified chimney engineer
  • consider a system of heat sensors within the thatch around the chimney, which will give you an early warning of any overheating of the thatch
  • if you are undertaking renovation work or re-roofing, consider forming a fireproof barrier between the roof timbers and the thatch layer
  • make sure that the top of the chimney stack is at least 1.8 metres (six feet) above the ridge as this will allow sparks to die away before they drop on to the thatch
  • spark arresters can help prevent fires but they must be kept clean - every three months on chimneys in regular use
  • fit smoke detectors in the roof space – these should be linked so that a detector operating in the roof space will activate the other detectors in the property
  • if you have any painting or plumbing work done involving a blow torch, be sure the person undertaking the work has a suitable fire extinguisher to hand
  • all electrical work should be carried out by a professional
  • wiring in the roof space should be checked regularly
  • install an outside tap with enough hose to reach around the house including the roof
  • avoid having bonfires or fireworks near thatched buildings and make sure your neighbours are aware of the danger to your home from their bonfires or fireworks
  • be extra vigilant if bonfires are being lit nearby
  • use a bulkhead type light fitting in your loft space
  • never burn rubbish or garden waste near the property
  • where television aerials cannot be fitted to a freestanding pole, the aerial should be fixed to a gable or gable-end chimney, where the cable can be run down the wall, avoiding contact with the thatch

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