Check your chimney! 2006 worst winter for thatch fires

Article date: 19 February 2007

  • Average cost £100,000 per property

Britain’s 60,000 thatched cottage owners are being warnedtoday to double check their chimneys before they light their openfires and wood burners this winter.

The majority of thatched properties are in the South West and Eastof England. Last year was one of the worst on record for thatchfires in East Anglia – there were over 30 in Norfolk andSuffolk and 13 in Cambridgeshire.*

The majority (around 90%)** are chimney related - caused by woodburners and open fires with the fire starting in poorly maintainedor faulty flue liners and chimneys. The heat transfers through thebrickwork into the adjacent thatch, reaches ignition temperatureand catches fire.

An investigation carried out by Norwich Union Insurance into 20thatch fires over the last two winters has revealed the averagecost is around £100,000 per claim.***

Colin Connor, household underwriter at Norwich Union, says simplesteps like having your chimney swept and flue lining inspectedregularly can prevent future problems.

“So far the winter has been mild and many people have chosennot to light fires, but the recent freezing temperatures are astark reminder that we still have a lot of cold weather ahead ofus. We are warning all thatch home owners to ensure their chimneysand thatch are in tip top condition.

“While fires in thatch properties are rarer than in standardhomes - mainly because of the extra precautions that thatch ownerstake - it is important to remember that once a fire takes hold in athatch the damage can be much greater.

“The average house fire costs around £5,000, our figures showthat the average cost for a thatched property is twenty times thatamount.”

Today’s thatch properties mainly use water reed, combed wheatreed and long straw, all of which burn rapidly. The roof is alsodesigned to repel water so it makes it doubly difficult for firefighters to extinguish.

Of particular concern are wood burning stoves – an everincreasing feature in many period properties. It will surprise manyto discover that wood burners can reach temperatures of around600ºc - which is double that of an open fire.

Graham Joy, risk manager at Norfolk Fire Service, said wood burnerswere believed to be the main cause of thatch fires lastwinter.

“In every case bar one we attended a wood burner was involvedand was alight at the time of the fire.

“Homes these days have huge wood burners that give outamazing amounts of heat so the flue gases reach much highertemperatures than the chimney was originally designed totake.”

Thatch: Some facts
90% of thatch fires arechimney-related but other reasons include:

  • Electrical faults
  • Building works – use of electrics/naked flames
  • Discarded cigarettes
  • Garden bonfires
  • Vermin – check your attic! Rats, mice or squirrels canchew through wiring and cables leaving them vulnerable to catchingfire.

Thatch fire prevention tips

  • Have chimney swept at least twice a year (three times if you useyour fire daily)
  • Ensure the chimney stack is “sound” as well aslining and timbers – have it inspected at least everythree years by qualified chimney engineer
  • Don’t burn wet or unseasoned wood as this leaves greatertar deposits in the flue
  • Check and test all electrics every six years
  • Don’t place high wattage security lights near the thatch
  • Beware of building work in the attic which may involve nakedflames
  • Have fire extinguishers readily accessible
  • Fit smoke detectors in the attic space and ensure they areinter-linked with other smoke detectors in the house
  • We don’t recommend the use of spark arrestors, they becomeeasily clogged up with soot and tar deposits thereforepreventing hot gases from escaping. This results in an increasedtemperature build-up within the chimney. Where they are fittedit is essential they are regularly cleaned
  • Ensure electricity cables do not come into contact with theroof.


Press office contacts:
Rebecca Holmes,Norwich Union press office, 01603 354346/07800 690731

Notes to editors:

* Figures supplied by Norfolk, Suffolk andCambridgeshire Fire Services
** Norwich Union Risk Services data
*** Norwich Union reviewed 20 thatch fire claims from 2005/06 theaverage cost of those claims was approximately £100,000.

For a copy of The Thatched Property Safety Guide, go to

About Norwich Union
Norwich Union is theUK’s largest general insurer with a market share of around15%, with a focus on insurance for individuals and smallbusinesses.

It is a leading provider of life, pensions and investment productsand one of the largest financial adviser (FA) providers. FAsprovide over 70% of the company's long-term savings business in theUK.

Norwich Union’s news releases and a selection of images areavailable from Aviva's internet press centre at

Back to top