Practicing Fireplace Safety

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As the weather turns colder, many homeowners rely on fireplaces to keep a family room warm and comfortable. However, improperly using your fireplace can make your home vulnerable to a fire.

The leading cause for these types of house fires is a buildup of creosote in the chimney. Creosote is a byproduct of the burning process. When wood burns, volatile gases are formed, which are carried up the chimney. Some will condense onto the cooler surfaces inside the chimney, and this condensation eventually creates an oily black residue known as creosote.

Burning wood with a high resin content, such as pine, can accelerate creosote buildup. Recently cut wood, also called green wood, has a high moisture content, and burning this type of wood will deposit more creosote on the inside of your chimney than wood which has dried for at least six months. Burning wet wood will also increase the amount of creosote that is developed.

Fire temperature is another factor in creosote production. A smoldering fire will produce more creosote than a roaring one because the hotter the fire, the more volatile gases are burned up before they have a chance to rise up into the chimney.

Chimney fires resulting from creosote buildup burn as hot as 2,000 degrees, hot enough to melt the metal liner inside the chimney. These fires can be very difficult to put out, so you should be careful to take precautions to prevent them from starting in the first place.

In addition to preventing creosote buildup, the U.S. Fire Administration offers the following guidelines for using your fireplace safely:

Operation Safety

  • Clear the area around the hearth of debris and flammable materials.
  • Use a metal mesh screen to keep ashes from flying out of the hearth.
  • Leave glass doors open while a fire is burning.
  • Install stovepipe thermometers to monitor flue temperatures.
  • Maintain a steady air supply to the fireplace. Restricting the air flow could cause creosote buildup.
  • Never use flammable liquids to start a fire.
  • Build small fires that burn completely and produce less smoke.
  • Never burn trash in your fireplace.
  • Place logs at the rear of the fireplace on a support grate that can adequately support the weight.
  • Extinguish the fire before going to bed or leaving the house. Soak hot ashes in water and seal them in a metal container outside the house.

Protecting Your Home

  • Stack firewood a minimum of 30 feet away from the house.
  • Keep the roof clear of debris.
  • Cover the chimney with a specially designed mesh screen to prevent sparks from flying out and causing the roof to burn.
  • Remove branches that hang above the chimney, flues, or vents.
  • Install smoke alarms on every level of your home. Test them monthly and change the batteries at least once a year.
  • Extend all vent pipes at least three feet above the roof.

There are several types of chimney fire extinguishers available, and you should always have one accessible in the event of an emergency. Being prepared for a possible fireplace fire can make the difference in saving your home and keeping your family from injury or death.

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