All through the winter, we see and hear one heart-breaking news story after another about a family made homeless by fire.

Often it’s an electrical fire, or a fire that starts in an improperly cleaned chimney. But surprisingly often, the fire turns out to have started as a result of dumping the woodstove ashes into the trash while they’re still warm — or cleaning out the fireplace into a cardboard box, instead of a fire-proof metal container.

Waiting to Flare Up

Ashes can hold heat for several days — enough heat to generate a fast flame if they come into contact with combustible material, like the papers and packaging that often end up in the garbage alongside them.

Just add oxygen, and poof! It’s on fire!

Ashes in the Compost

Many people put ashes into their compost, and this is really a great idea (assuming that the ashes are from untreated wood, of course).

Wood ashes are biodegradable, they contain many trace nutrients that help to feed a garden, and they’re alkaline (like lime) so can help to balance out a really acidic soil. Lilacs and roses just love a top-dressing of compost that’s been amended with wood ash…

But here’s the thing — even if you’re composting your fireplace ashes, instead of dumping them in the garbage, it is extremely important to make sure that the ashes have cooled completely.

A Cautionary Tale

Just last spring, a neighbour of mine accidentally burned 40 acres of pasture land and almost lost his house to the fire, when he put hot ashes from his wood-burning stove onto his compost pile. It was terrifying for everyone in the community — and especially those who came out with shovels and rakes, battling long hours to beating back the fire before it could reach the woods.

I’m reminded of that scarey day — which so easily could have turned out to be so tragic — because the radio news this morning had yet another story of a family made homeless by fire.

It’s one of those things that makes you think, “that could never happen to me”… and with a little extra caution, let’s hope it never does!

Technorati Tags: fireplace, fire, compost

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