As Anne Schulte sat near the fireplace watching television, she didn't know a fire had ignited inside the walls of her home.
When firefighters from three Rim country departments arrived Thursday afternoon, smoke was billowing above the house on Paloma Vista Road in Mesa del Caballo, but the source was not immediately evident.
"It took a little time for firefighters to figure it out," said Chuck Jacobs, Houston Mesa fire chief. "It was burning in a concealed area in front of the fireplace."
Jacobs said there is a hidden danger of which homeowners with a fireplace should be aware.
"The process is called pyrolysis," he said. "It's the same thing that happens when you put a piece of bread in the toaster. It's exposed to intense heat, but because the bread is moist it doesn't catch fire, it only gets toasted."
Jacobs said that a poorly constructed fireplace can dry out the wood framing of the structure around it.
"If you kept putting the same piece of bread in the toaster over and over again, eventually it would dry out enough that it would turn black and catch fire. That's what happened to the framing of this fireplace," Jacobs said.
In this case Jacobs said the problem originated when the decorative stone facing was added to the fireplace.
Jacobs, who retired in 1998 as Payson's fire chief after 22 years, said fireplaces should be inspected and cleaned at least once a year at an absolute minimum. Some require more frequent cleaning.
Firefighters found flames burning just a few feet away from walls lined with family photos and went to work to stop it from spreading. They tore down the burning frame of the fireplace and dragged the smoldering pieces of wood and debris out into the front yard. Jacobs said this enabled firefighters to protect the home from excessive water damage.
"The fire crews did an excellent job of stopping the fire with minimal fire damage, virtually no water damage, and minimal smoke damage," Jacobs said.
Ginny Ennen of the Houston Mesa fire board watched as firefighters saved the house.
"I'm proud of our volunteer firefighters," Ennen said. "All the fire departments worked together as a team. We've got Beaver Valley, Payson and Houston Mesa working side-by-side today. That's what it's all about."
Ennen expressed a need for more volunteers for the Houston Mesa Fire Department.
"This is our community's little volunteer fire department and we need volunteers -- everything from first responders to EMTs," she said. She said the department provides training for EMT and firefighter 1 and 2 positions.
"The firefighters were very friendly, professional and helpful. We are grateful for their efforts in saving our home," Mike Schulte said.
Anyone interested in volunteering can call Jacobs at (928) 472-7908.