A close up of a thatched roof

Are thatch roofs safe?

If a thatch roof catches fire the results can be devastating, but that doesn't mean they're any less safe.

When thinking about thatched cottages, an image of a cosy little cottage in the English countryside springs to mind. However, the risks associated with owning a thatched property often puts people off even though thatch structures are no more likely to catch alight than buildings with slate or asphalt roofs. The problem lies in the fact that thatch is a lot more combustible and harder to put out than other roofing materials and is more likely to have a devastating effect on the entire building. Because of this combustibility, it's very important to be aware of the proper safety and maintenance requirements for thatched properties.

What causes thatch fires

For years, it was believed that heat transfer from chimneys was the main cause of thatch fires. However, a study conducted by Historic England and NFU Mutual found that fires were more likely being caused by sparks and embers being produced from the chimney. This could be worsened by birds nests and in some rarer cases, spark arrestors could cause embers to remain close to the thatch. Their research also suggested that hot flue gasses leaking into the thatch through damaged chimney stacks could cause fires.

Most types of thatch reed are naturally waterproof and are used for their water-repellent properties, however, this makes it very difficult for Fire and Rescue services to put fires out. This is partly why thatch fires can result in extensive damage to property.

What can prevent thatch fires

Despite the risks involved in thatch fires, it doesn't mean people shouldn't buy thatched properties, there are plenty of ways to mitigate the risks.

  • Chimney care is the most important way to prevent a fire. Chimneys should be regularly swept to prevent a build-up of tar and soot. A certificate of this should be produced for insurance purposes. It's recommended that the chimney pots should be at least 1.8m above the thatch to reduce the risk of ember related fires, where this is not possible it's advised to avoid wood burning and multifuel stoves. A suitable liner should be installed where possible to mitigate any risks of heat transference fires caused by faults in the chimney stack.
  • Stoves. Open fires can be a very alluring feature in a home but with thatched properties, it's important to be aware of the risks they carry. Firelighters should be used to light stoves rather than wastepaper and rubbish as they can be lifted from the fire and into chimney. Stoves need to be operated at the right temperature to prevent soot and tar from building up. A build-up of these deposits can lead to chimney fires as well as contribute to embers being released from the chimney stack.
  • External sources can also be a danger for owners of thatched properties. Bonfires should never be lit near the property and barbeques should be used well away from the building to prevent the risk of embers spreading. Chinese lanterns also pose a risk for thatch property owners and so neighbours should be made aware of the danger external fire sources carry

Our partners at the Thatch Advice Centre have a lot of excellent expert advice and tips on how to manage the risk of fires in thatch properties as well as other resources on where to find specialist services. You can find them at www.thatchadvicecentre.co.uk

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