Thatch Roof Fires – Are we losing our Thatch Roof Heritage?


The risk of fire in thatched roofs is well known and studies have highlighted what scenarios are most likely to set a roof alight. There is almost universal agreement that most thatch fires are caused by faulty flues or chimneys and wood burners often play a role. Recommendations from Insurance Companies, Fire Brigades, Thatching Associations, Chimney Sweeps and Surveyors are trotted out on a regular basis, but still thatch properties are being destroyed by fire.

According to TAS Ltd (www.thatchingadvisoryservices.co.uk) since the beginning of March 2016 and May 3rd 2016 there have been 19 Thatch fires of which 3 roofs were partly damaged, but 26 thatch owners had their properties destroyed (some of these were terraces of thatch).

Measures taken to lessen the risks have been around for several decades and focus mainly on fire barriers placed under the thatch and spraying thatch roofs with fire retardants. In the last few years more high tech chimney alert systems have been introduced which warn thatch owners to dangerously high temperatures within their chimneys. These on their own though cannot be the total solution and will of course not stop a thatch roof from burning when the fire starts within the thatch.

So what is going wrong? What is happening that is causing thatched properties that have been with us for decades to burn to the ground – and I mean burn to the ground. When a thatched roof catches fire it’s not just a case of the thatch being lost and a few roof timbers being charred, more often than not the only recognisable features of the property that are left standing are the walls and the chimneys.

This is why fire brigades send so many pumps and men to every thatch fire. They are needed not only to fight the fire but also to remove everything from the property before either the fire or a combination of foam and water destroys the entire contents.

Some at this stage may be saying such talk is alarmist and that the percentage of fires compared to the number of thatched roofs is small and therefore not something to be concerned about. They may also say that better reporting of these fires means that undue focus is being put on them and that such fires have always existed.

In a way part of the problem is that thatch fires are almost part of the norm. Thatch fires have always existed but, and it’s a big but – that was before our knowledge of their causes has become so widespread. The one saving grace about a thatch roof fire is that they initially burn slowly which gives time for the occupants to get out. I wonder if we would be discussing them in the same terms if there were fatalities?

The interpretation of the figures can be discussed for ever and a day. Those that want to turn away from the problem are missing the point. As a Thatcher with 35 years in the trade, what concerns me is the negative publicity that thatch roofs are getting. The reporting of these fires is not going to make people want to live with thatch. They may even put off potential developers and builders from constructing new properties with thatch roofs or hasten the day when people will strip their thatch and replace with tiles or slate. In the North West of England in the last 2 years I know of at least 1100sq metres of thatch that has been stripped from roofs and not replaced.

Roof which has had the thatch stripped

This roof is just north of London and has had the thatch stripped

There will be some that will point to the fact that a lot of these properties will have to be re-thatched because they are listed. Again this is missing the point. First some of them will not be listed or re-thatched simply because the whole property is destroyed so there is nothing to rebuild. This was the case with a 300sq metre thatch roof in Cheshire which following a fire was rebuilt and tiled.

Others will not be daunted by roofs lost to fire and will point to the 2015 Enterprise Building with its Thatched wall panels at The University of East Anglia as an example of how thatch can be used. They will also mention the new one off developments in the West Country and elsewhere to show that thatch is still popular. My answer would be that these are precisely that – they are one off developments and do not constitute a widespread building of new thatch.

At a risk of stating the obvious, for thatch to flourish the number of new buildings that are thatched has to be greater than those that are lost. I believe we are living in a time where those figures are perilously close. If more thatch is being lost than being built, then it goes without saying the industry is in decline. Of course those Thatchers who work in areas where there is a lot of thatch and a full order book will probably at this stage feel such comments are unduly negative. What I would say to them is how many new thatched properties are you working on every year as opposed to re-thatching and repair work?

So what can be done to make thatch fires an absolute rarity?

If fires are to be a thing of the past, people who live in thatched properties must be made aware of the dangers and have explained to them what measures they should be taking. It is simply no good having experts and professionals in the trade or associated with thatching talking about the issues amongst themselves. Likewise, it is not sufficient for Insurance Companies to just raise peoples’ premiums if they admit to having a wood burner. This will not and has not stopped thatch fires. Sadly, many thatch fires occur in properties which are hundreds of years old where there have never been any fire incidents and so even their great age and fire free history is no guarantee that these properties will not become another sad statistic.

Thatchers and Insurance Companies have a key role to play as they are the two groups that are in touch with Thatch Owners and both need to be more proactive and work hand in hand with Thatch Owners.

First a distinction has to be made between fires which start externally – i.e. burning material falling on the outside of the thatch and those that start under the surface or within the property. This latter category is how most fires start.

The list below is what I as Thatcher believe could be done to greatly minimise the risks.

Measures to combat external fires:

1. Get your Thatcher to fit bird guards which will stop nests being built in the chimneys and birds falling down them.       Something like this will suffice www.amazon.co.uk/Chimney-Bird-Guard-Cowl-Balloon/dp/B008DU09A0.

2. Speak to your neighbours and seek their co-operation in not having bonfires in their gardens and if they do so make sure the wind is blowing away from your property or there is no wind. This co-operation is also needed on bonfire night.

3. Have the outside of your roof sprayed with a fire retardant such as Thatchsayf (available from Thatching Advisory Services Ltd).

4. Ask your Thatcher to check all external parts of your chimney for holes, decay etc. Check the pot is well cemented to the top of the chimney. Your Thatcher should be able to carry out any minor repairs and he can also take photos if a bigger job is needed which you can show to builders to price for.

Chimney pot which needs to be repaired

5. Ask a Thatcher to clean your spark arrestor every 3 months, if it is used regularly or remove it altogether.

6. Make sure the top of your chimney including the pot is at least 1.8 metres above the ridge line. Your Thatcher can measure this for you. With some listed and historic buildings this is not possible and some single storey properties with a small roof would just not look right if this were done. If this is the case, ask yourself if you really need a real fire in those chimneys? Ejected embers have been found to be a major cause of fires.

Chimney pot

7. Ask your local fire brigade to visit your property. They will be able to see where the nearest fire hydrants and sources of water are. They can also gauge any possible obstructions in getting to your property such a narrow roads and sat-nav directions that may not be entirely accurate etc.

8. Have an outside tap and hose that can reach round the house which could be used to tackle a fire in its early stages.

9. If you are having your roof re-ridged and you have multiple layers of thatch, ask your Thatcher to strip all the thatch away from the chimney so that it can be inspected and any chimney repairs carried out before the thatching is completed. This may involve stripping down a thickness of 2 metres or more of old thatch.

Chimney in need of repair

10. If your Thatcher is re-coating your roof with another layer of thatch fixed over the top of an old layer, make sure the ridge height does not increase. He will need to strip back some of the existing thatch so this does not happen in order to maintain a good pitch. Many chimneys start at a good height above the thatch and over several re-coatings of thatch can become less visible.

Measures to combat fires which start internally or on the underside of the thatch:

1. Have your wiring system checked.

2. Install smoke alarms in your loft.

3. Check the appearance of your chimneys in the loft that have a real fire for holes, cracks and general decay. Make sure roof timbers are not fastened into the sides of the chimney.

4. Have your chimney swept regularly by a qualified chimney sweep and keep a record of this.

5. Under no circumstances light a fire in a chimney that has not been used on a regular and recent basis until it has been checked by a chimney engineer.

6. Have a full survey of your chimneys using a camera to ascertain any damage to the walls or the flue.

7. Have a chimney alert system fitted. Thatching Advisory Services can do this for you.

8. If you are re-thatching and removing all the thatch have a firefelt or fireboards fitted over the top of the rafters.       These can be obtained from Thatching Advisory Services.

9. Only burn seasoned wood.

10. Never assume a wood burner is the same as having a real fire. Wood burners not only generate much more heat into your house but also up in the chimney and have found to be a common cause of many thatch roof fires. Think carefully before you decide to install a wood burner.