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Burning Issues: Fireplace and Chimney Safety

On a long, dark winter's night, there's nothing more comforting than relaxing by a bright fireplace or cozy woodstove. And with the cold snaps much of North America regularly experiences, it's understandable if you want to offset high oil and electricity bills by increasing the use of your fireplace or woodstove.

Fireplace.

But before you reach for those safety strike matches, consider that the U.S. Fire Administration estimates woodstoves alone are the primary cause of more than 4,000 private residence fires annually. And when you add fireplaces and faulty chimneys to that list, the Chimney Safety Institute of America reports annual average property losses in excess of $30 million.

So even if you're in a hurry to enjoy your fireplace or stove, it's essential to first ensure its safe operation. Read on for some best practice tips for burning logs in a fireplace or woodstove.

  • Cap your chimney. Before you start your first fire of the season, inspect your chimney's cap for damages. Check that it's intact and impenetrable to birds, squirrels and small debris that can get caught and cause a chimney fire. When in doubt, hire a professional to do the job. That way, you can be sure that the chimney's cap meets all safety requirements.
  • Sweep your chimney and connectors. Likewise, before your first use of the season, hire a professional chimney sweep to clean your chimney and connectors. A pro proves you've conducted proper maintenance for insurance purposes. In addition, most modern chimney sweeps are equipped with video monitors to allow you the final inspection of your cleaned chimney.
  • Check flashing. In order to prevent water from seeping into your house along the line where your roof meets your chimney, inspect your chimney's flashing annually. Flashing is the metal or sealant that forms a guard along the bottom edge of any chimney and overlaps to where it meets the roof. Cracked flashing can cause water seepage and damage, which can go undetected in attic spaces during winter months and result in mildew and/or mold damage. As in most chimney related services, many of today's chimney sweeps are trained in flashing inspection and installation.
  • Burn seasoned wood. Wood that's been cut, stacked and stored for at least six months is called seasoned. It's easily recognized by the deep cracks in the exposed ends of the logs. This means the moisture content of the wood is under twenty percent, allowing it to burn cleanly and well. At the opposite end of the spectrum is green wood, which has too much moisture to burn properly and produces much more creosote—a chimney-clogging flammable substance.
  • Use wrought iron fireplace tools. Flaming logs will readjust their positions in your fireplace; make sure to have a good set of wrought iron tools on hand. In addition to a good poker and set of tongs, it's a good idea to have a small brush and shovel for dealing with ashes.
  • Get a covered ash bucket. Especially if you burn a dense hardwood like oak, you'll have embers and ashes that can be hot for hours after the last flame is visible. Don't be foolish about ashes. Get a purposely-built ash bucket with a tightly fitting lid.
  • Have a spark guard. Unlike woodstoves with tightly fitting sealed doors and dampers, fireplaces can give off sparks at regular intervals. If you don't have one already, outfit your fireplace with a spark guard, so an open flame doesn't become a hazard.
  • Install working smoke detectors. If you regularly use your fireplace or woodstove, install fire and smoke detectors on all floors in your home. Be sure to get detectors that are also carbon monoxide alarms, and regularly check that all batteries used in detectors are fresh.

Remember: always burn seasoned wood and hire a certified chimney sweep to ensure your chimney's in good working order. That way, all you have to worry about is who's going to toss the next log on the fire!

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