Crime & Courts

Modular fireplace risk cited in Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s home blaze

A missing baseplate and a hairline crack in Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s fireplace likely contributed to a blaze that caused $500,000 in damage to his home, fire investigators said Tuesday.

The early morning fire in south Charlotte last week points to a potential safety hazard for thousands of modular fireplaces installed over the past 25 years in U.S. houses as less-expensive alternatives to all-brick hearths, fire experts say.

Rivera’s first-floor gas fireplace was built directly onto the wooden subfloor, which deteriorated and caught fire after a decade of use and being on for an extended period the day before the fire, said Charlotte Chief Fire Investigator Paul Wilkinson. The instruction manual for Rivera’s fireplace cautions builders: “Never place (this brand of fireplace) on a combustible floor without the baseplate.”

It’s unclear why the fireplace was installed without the baseplate. A representative of Charlotte-based Beacon Homes, which built Rivera’s house in 2004, declined to comment on the construction of the fireplace, saying only that the home would not be occupied if it didn’t pass inspection.

The hairline crack that fire investigators discovered in the back of Rivera’s fireplace may have been caused by the house settling over the past decade, Wilkinson said. Firefighters have said the fire was an accident and that the Riveras used their fireplace appropriately; insurance investigators are looking at the precise cause in more detail.

Whatever the underlying factors, intense heat was transferred from the decorative fireplace to the flammable wood beneath, drying out the wood and lowering the temperature at which it would ignite.

Rivera and his wife were awakened by the smell of smoke early Jan. 5; no one was injured. Firefighters saved the couple’s dogs and mementos, but the blaze left the $1.3 million home on Heydon Hall Circle uninhabitable.

Rivera declined to comment Tuesday, saying he is still meeting with investigators.

Industry experts say fireplace problems easily can be overlooked by code enforcement employees or home inspectors, who would have to rip apart walls or floors to see some flaws.

“The reality is that many of those things remain hidden until someone does some serious investigation,” said Ashley Eldridge, the Chimney Safety Institute of America’s director of education and a former chimney sweep. “It’s not uncommon for a component  to get missed. If it comes at no additional cost, nobody’s ever going to notice.”

Fire investigators said Rivera has an Isokern IBV-46 fireplace, a high-end model designed by Schiedel Chimney Systems of Denmark.

Eldridge, who has toured the manufacturer’s factory, said its fire-resistant bricks are good insulators for decades if the fireplace is installed and maintained correctly. Proper maintenance includes clearing debris from the fireplace and chimney.

“They take this lava rock, crush it and then they compress it  and they produce these components that fit together like Legos,” Eldridge said.

Such fireplaces are shipped in a kit builders can install without having to hire bricklayers or other specialists. They’re marketed as a cheaper alternative to a masonry brick fireplace.

Earthcore, the U.S. company that manufactures the Schiedel fireplaces in the United States, says they can be installed in less than a day. The company has sold more than 150,000 fireplaces in the U.S., according to a brochure.

It’s unclear who installed the Riveras’ fireplace for the homebuilder, or what qualifications they had. The first page of the instruction manual says the fireplace must be installed by “a locally certified gas service agent, licensed plumber or the gas supplier.”

The director of Mecklenburg County Code Enforcement, which must issue a certificate of occupancy to newly built houses, could not be reached Tuesday.

Wayne Mander, a Charlotte-based home inspector and the vice president of the North Carolina Licensed Home Inspector Association, said it can be difficult for code enforcement employees or home inspectors to be well-versed on every component of a fireplace. They typically ensure that the fireplace is built to the specifications of the manufacturer, which can be lengthy. The manual for Rivera’s fireplace, for example, has 44 pages.

“It just becomes very difficult for (inspectors),” Mander said. “Whether it’s a fireplace, a hot-water heater – it gets exhausting keeping up with all of it.”

In 2010, fire officials in Greensboro warned residents about the risks of such fireplaces after fires at two homes, according to the (Greensboro) News & Record.

Experts say most decorative fireplaces are a danger only if they run for long periods of time. And a good chimney sweep can use a special camera to look at parts of the fireplace hidden from view.

Rivera has said that the fireplace had been used for several hours the day before the fire, while his brothers were watching football.

“If you have a fireplace in your home, you need to know how it was installed and how it works,” Wilkinson said. “Find a professional to at least give it a once-over.”

Staff writer Joe Person and researcher Maria David contributed.