If you are fortunate enough to be living under a beautiful, traditional thatched roof – or considering owning a property with a thatched roof – you may just be a little concerned that your roof is more of a fire hazard than a conventional roof.
You’ve probably already discovered that buildings with thatched roofs are more expensive to insure against fire damage, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more susceptible to catching fire – it’s all about the amount of damage that can result to the whole structure if your thatched roof does go up in flames.
According to the highly informative Thatch Advice Centre statistically homes with thatched roofs are no more likely to catch fire than those with more conventional roofs, although, as the Centre warns: “if they do, the results are often rapid and spectacular”.
Indeed, the Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service says thatch fires spread rapidly and are extremely difficult to extinguish: “Nearly a quarter of thatched property fires we attended over the last six years saw the whole building damaged”.
Even the National Society of Master Thatchers (NSMT) itself admits that “thatch fires are disastrous”, not least because they usually result in the destruction of unique heritage buildings.
Causes of Thatch Roof Fires
According to the NSMT every year between 50 and 80 thatched properties – nearly all of them older pre-1960 buildings, especially listed properties with deep straw thatch – experience a serious fire.
Most often the cause of a thatch fire is down to a damaged, dirty, too short or faulty chimney or flue, particularly if a woodburning stove is being used. This isn’t just a guess … it’s backed up by a well-known survey conducted by Burgoynes Consulting Scientists and Engineers. The problem is down to embers being ejected from the flue or chimney and igniting the thatch.
Other causes of fires in thatch roofs have been narrowed down by research to include electrical faults, downlighters, arson and even lights used to grow cannabis in the loft! There have also been very rare incidents of thatch catching alight from flying embers from a bonfire burning close to the building.
Prevention of Fires in Thatched Roofs
Knowing the main causes of thatch fires means that preventive measures can be itemised and acted on, so the risk of fire can be reduced.
You don’t have to forego your woodburner to be safe from fire in your thatched home, just practice good maintenance and use your common sense to do all possible to prevent ejected embers.
- Make sure your chimney/flue meets the building regulation height of 1.8m above the roof level to keep sparks well away from the thatch.
- Keep your chimney/flue regularly swept during the burning season.
- Use your woodburner according to the manufacturers’ instructions and conditions.
- Burn only seasoned hardwood or kiln dried wood, with a maximum moisture content of 20%.
- When lighting the fire avoid using paper and cardboard – firelighters are preferable.
If you’re using a woodburner (or have an open fire) in your thatched property it’s a good idea to have a fire safety officer from your local authority come to check your premises to make sure you have done all you can to reduce the fire risk.
Advice about Thatch Roof Fire Safety
There are several general fire safety precautions you can take to reduce the risk of your thatched house catching fire. Here are some of the things to bear in mind:
- Don’t let trades people, or yourself, use blow torches or undertake any form of “hot work” in the roof void space. Certainly don’t flick a lighter in the roof space.
- Keep the loft free of stored items and make sure access hatches are as big as possible – with fire-resistant covers.
Make sure your electrics are regularly checked.
- Keep all wiring at least 30cm away from the thatch, and any electrical wiring in the roof space should be in vermin proof conduits.
- Don’t light bonfires, barbeques, fireworks or Chinese lanterns anywhere that could allow embers to land on the thatch – and tell your neighbours too.
- Be prepared – make sure you have an outside tap with a hose ready-connected and protected from frost, just in case. Also make sure you know of any fire hydrants, lakes or ponds nearby that the fire services might be able to make use of.
- Make an escape plan that everyone should be aware of and make sure escape routes are kept clear of obstructions.
If a fire does break out, keep calm and get everyone out as quickly as possible. Don’t hang around to check where the smoke is coming from or try to extinguish it yourself – thatch fires are unpredictable and fast. Call 999 and wait outside for the fire service.
Fire Detectors & Fire Alarms for Thatched Properties
The problem with thatch fires is that they take hold very quickly, and burn very fiercely, so early detection is vital.
Just like with any building, your thatched property should be fitted with adequate and appropriate smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, and these should be regularly checked and tested. It’s also wise to consider a heat monitoring and alarm system for the chimney area to keep a check on flue temperatures.
If you take fire safety seriously – as you should – it would be good to put a fire suppression system in place on your property, which would include fire sprinklers, fire retardant sprays and extinguishers. This would require professional advice, and all occupants of the house should be familiar with the system.
There are also various fire barriers and boards available, specially developed for thatch fire prevention, which can be fitted over the rafters and underneath the thatch, designed to hold a fire back long enough for the fire service to arrive. Speak to your Master Thatcher about these products and which would be suitable for your roof.
Find out more in the National Society of Masters Thatchers’ Guide to Fire Prevention in Thatched Homes.
If you follow all the advice of the local authorities, fire service, NSMT and your local Master Thatcher – which in Somerset, Wiltshire, Hampshire or Dorset is Steven Hewlett – you will be able to relax and enjoy living under your charming thatched roof for many trouble-free decades. When it comes to thatch roof fires, prevention is the key.
My family are something of a rarity in modern Britain. Myself & my brothers represent the fourth generation of the Hewlett family to work as master thatchers, carrying on a business that was started by his grandfather back in 1925, at the tender age of 16.
I am a proud member of National Society of Master Thatchers and have been thatching roofs across Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset & The New Forest for over 40 years.