Gathering with family and friends around a traditional wood-burning fireplace is the very essence of comfort in wintertime, especially during the holidays. But that cozy, crackling fire can also present some serious hazards—ranging anywhere from smoke filling your family room to a full-fledged house fire—if you don’t use and maintain your fireplace properly. Here are some commonsense safety tips that will help you enjoy the warm glow of a wood fire without all the worry:
Schedule an inspection and cleaning
Your fireplace and chimney should be inspected by a certified professional on an annual basis to ensure the entire system is structurally sound, in good repair, and safe to use. The chimney should also be cleaned at least once a year to remove creosote buildup—a black, tar-like byproduct of wood combustion that increases the risk of chimney fires as it accumulates—and eliminate any obstructions that might be present to ensure proper airflow through the chimney.
Cap the chimney
If one is not already present, it’s well worth the modest price to have a chimney cap installed. A chimney cap will not only help keep moisture out of your chimney, but it will also prevent hot embers from reaching your (or your neighbor’s) roof, thereby reducing the risk of a house fire, as well as exclude birds and other animals from the chimney.
Burn the right fuel
Any wood used in your fireplace should be fully seasoned, meaning it has been aged and allowed to dry for at least a year after cutting, or kiln-dried. Fresh-cut (“green”) or only partially seasoned wood has a high moisture content and will tend to produce excessive smoke, and in turn creosote buildup, when burned.
Also, be aware that not all types of wood burn the same even if properly seasoned. Hardwoods such as oak, maple, and birch are commonly considered preferable for fireplace use because they tend to burn more slowly, produce more heat, and contain fewer residual sap pockets than softwoods such as pine do. Manufactured logs are also a good choice, as they burn hotter and cleaner than natural wood.
Screen it and clear away combustibles
Whatever wood you use, it’s inevitable that the occasional spark or ember will pop out of the fire. To limit the likelihood of nearby items getting scorched or ignited, be sure to use a fireplace screen and move all furnishings, rugs, and other combustible materials at least three feet away from the hearth. Do not, however, close your glass fireplace doors while a fire is burning. These doors serve to keep cold drafts out of your home when there is no fire in the fireplace, not to prevent sparks or embers from escaping. In fact, they can shatter when exposed to the intense heat of a fire.
Open the damper and preheat the flue
One of the most common mistakes homeowners make when using a fireplace is forgetting to open the damper, resulting in a room filled with smoke that can take weeks to air out completely. Double check to make sure this simple step has been completed before starting a fire.
Another way to prevent fireplace smoke from entering your home after starting a fire is to preheat the flue to establish a draft up through the chimney. Here’s how: After opening the damper completely and stacking your fire-building materials as you normally would, take a few sheets of newspaper and roll them up in a cone shape to form a torch. Light the wide end of the newspaper torch and hold it under the flue area to begin warming the air (remember, warm air rises). Once you observe that the flow of air has reversed and is flowing upward, you can go ahead and start your fire using the newspaper torch.
Be careful when cleaning the firebox
When scooping out ashes from the firebox, keep in mind that embers can stay hot for quite some time after the fire has gone out. Before taking on this chore, it’s a good idea to wait a few days to give any hidden hot embers time to cool. Then, place the ashes in a metal container—not a plastic bucket or cardboard box—and take them outdoors away from the house, garage, or any combustible structure or material to await disposal when you’re certain they’ve cooled completely.
Don’t forget standard home fire safety
Of course, in any home with a functioning fireplace, standard fire-safety procedures become all the more essential. Keep a fire extinguisher close at hand whenever you have a fire going, and make sure (properly functioning) smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are installed nearby. ❦