Almost half the $6.5 million in disaster aid for residents affected by the Seattle area 6.8 earthquake has gone to repair, replace or remove some 1,665 damaged or destroyed residential chimneys.
The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency last week said 50 percent of the homes inspected by FEMA sustained chimney damage in the Nisqually Earthquake, with most of the damage found in King, Pierce and Thurston counties.
Approximately $3 million has been distributed to homeowners for chimney repairs, and FEMA is warning home owners about the risk of damaged chimneys and the importance of hiring qualified professionals to repair or replace them.
Meanwhile, FEMA expanded the quake disaster area, doubling the number of counties due for assistance, which likely means more chimney damage will be uncovered.
"FEMA is providing funds for essential repairs for one damaged chimney per residence," said Bill Lokey, federal coordinating officer for the earthquake recovery operations. "Funds may be made available from FEMA for work on additional chimneys that pose a safety hazard."
The inherent rigidity of chimneys, masonry walls and larger masonry structures -- such as homes in the New Madrid Fault region in the Middle South -- makes them more susceptible to seismic-related damage because they don't "give" or move with seismic motion as does most of a well-built wood frame home.
"Unreinforced masonry (brick, concrete, etc) is where most damage occurs and that's what they found in Seattle. Wood frame homes are much less susceptible to the effects of damage and shaking," said Greg Rufe, president of operations at JCP Geologists, in Fremont, CA.
Among the first images of damage from the Seattle area quake were crumbling masonry structures including the Washington state capitol building.
Safety officials are concerned home owners may not take the proper precautions to have their chimneys and fireplaces inspected and repaired or replaced as warranted before firing them up.
"In the aftermath of past earthquakes, there have been disastrous results for homeowners who used their fireplaces before having their chimneys inspected for safety hazards," said Washington State's emergency coordinating officer Diane Offord.
"Homes have caught fire and fumes have escaped into the living area. Everyone should take the danger seriously," she said.
Cracked flues in masonry and metal chimneys may permit toxic gases to escape into the house and heat to escape outside of the fire box and ignite flammables. Vents on appliances that burn natural gas, such as fireplaces, water heaters, furnaces and stoves are subject to the same hazards and should be inspected at the same time.
"Normally, fireplaces that are regularly used should be inspected annually as part of a routine building maintenance," said Seattle Fire Marshall James Fosse. "This earthquake heightens the importance chimneys play in keeping a building safe."
After chimneys are inspected, homeowners must obtain a building permit before beginning repairs. Washington state law requires permits for chimney work, considered structural construction, but some counties are waiving permit fees for chimneys damaged in the earthquake. For more information about required permits and safety inspections, home owners should contact their local building department.
Strengthening, repairing or replacing masonry structures requires the expertise of a mason or other like-wise experienced contractor familiar with masonry and masonry strengthening materials.
"Chimney's can be rebuilt as reinforced chimneys, plywood panels can be nailed above the ceiling in the attic or under the roof to prevent masonry from falling into the house," said Fremont, CA geologist Leslie Ransbottom.
Washington state officials warned home owners not to let the frustration of delays in finding good help lead them to hire unqualified contractors or begin repairs before they have an inspection.
"Improperly repaired chimneys could allow carbon monoxide fumes to leak through to living areas, threatening safety and health," said State Coordinating Officer Diane Offord. "Even chimneys without visible damage can contain cracks in the flue or vent."
Homeowners should also retain any inspection and repair documentation of the project to show future buyers. You may have to disclose the work later to buyers and an expert job could help increase the value of your home.