Shorter days and chilly nights can mean only one thing: it’s time to fire up the fireplace. Before you get too far ahead of yourself, let’s talk about fire safety. It’s boring, possibly even a little overly dramatic at times, but the fact is that before you start that first big scorcher, there are quite a few things that you should know. This goes double if this is your first wood-burning fireplace.
Chimney Safety First
The bit of masonry that goes up and out of your firebox and through the roof is actually a lot more interesting than the bit at the bottom that holds the sparks and flames. It’s a bit more than just a masonry tube. It can pull in extra air if your fire’s too big, it can exhaust fumes and smoke, it can house baby bats if you’ve not used it in a while. There’s nothing that chimney can’t do.
Because of its versatility and the vital role your chimney plays in the function of your fireplace, it’s crucial that it’s in great shape before you use it the first time this winter. A lot of house fires start in the chimney because of nasty, black build-up called creosote. This sticky mess accumulates over the years with use and has to be scrubbed out from time to time.
If you don’t use your fireplace much, have had it inspected regularly and there’s also a chimney cap on so you’re positive there aren’t any animals living in the top, you can probably get away with burning a commercial creosote cleaning log at the beginning of the winter if you want to have the occasional safe fire. However, if you plan to depend on your fireplace for regular heat, this is absolutely not a place to skimp. Get a pro out to do a full inspection and give it a good sweep.
Your Ninety Second Fire Safety Crash Course
If I only had ninety seconds of your attention to give you a crash course on fire safety for your fireplace, these are the things I’d tell you:
Make sure your carbon monoxide detectors are working. I’m not even kidding when I say that carbon monoxide kills 4,000 people and sickens another 10,000 every year. Keep those carbon monoxide detectors in good shape.
Install a chimney cap. A lot of older homes have flues or chimneys without caps. This is bad news. You can get all number of animal infestations at the top of your chimney and never know it until you start a fire and things get a little bit hairy.
Clear the area. Fireplaces get hot — not molten magma hot, but hot enough to scald plants and damage other things. Embers sometimes pop out and can catch carpets, magazines and other sundries on fire. None of this is fun.
Keep the fires small and manageable. I realize you want a giant roaring fire, but if your firebox is only three feet across, you’re going to have to think a little smaller. Building too big of a fire risks overheating your firebricks and cracking them, causing permanent damage to your fireplace and making it unsafe to use. There should be ample room on all sides for your wood when it’s stacked and ready to burn.
Never use flammable liquids! You’re not lighting a grill, for Pete’s sake! No charcoal, no lighter fluid, no kerosene, no gasoline. This is a great way to get injured or killed and burn your house to the ground.
Don’t throw trash or wrapping paper in the fire. There are all kinds of reasons not to toss random trash in the fire, but we’re going to go with the fact that weird chemicals may be in it and you’ll be breathing that stuff. Plastics and foams are especially bad about this. Wrapping paper is just dangerous to burn, it can spark and flame in ways that are horrific. Take some in the backyard and burn it in your firepit. You’ll see what I mean.
Take advantage of your spark guard. Even the most perfectly seasoned wood will occasionally spark, so be prepared. Always use your spark guard, whether it’s a mesh curtain or a glass door. Doesn’t matter, just be safe.
Chimney Inspections are Cheap Insurance
You might get lucky and have a squeaky clean, perfectly intact, stainless steel-lined fireplace, but if you’ve not had an inspection, how will you know? Rather than relying on luck, rely on an expert you can trust. If everything checks out, you’ll be able to really enjoy your fires without worry. If it doesn’t, you can thank your lucky stars that you thought to have an inspection before firing that old fireplace up. Even with ample insurance, a chimney fire can be a demoralizing and devastating experience. Skip the trauma and celebrate holiday drama around a crackling fireplace this year (just do it safely!).