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A crackling fire in the fireplace, the sight of lazy smoke swirling above a stately chimney: These are the things that speak to the coziness of wintertime. But no matter how lovely that dancing fire is, it demands respect. You probably already know that having your chimney inspected before the temperatures drop is an excellent idea, but there are many other ways to keep your home safe during the winter months.

Keep the home fires burning safely

The U.S. Fire Administration estimates that heating fires account for 36% of all residential fires every year; chimneys and fireplaces are involved in 46% of those. These fires are often due to creosote buildup in chimneys, which is why a yearly inspection and regular cleanings are essential. There are several other things you can do right now that will help keep that fire burning safely behind the grate.

  • Watch those decorations. Though stockings and mantlepieces made of holiday greenery look gorgeous on a fireplace, don’t let them get too close to the fire. Use them only on high points on your fireplace, where the bricks or stones don’t get hot and the sparks can’t reach.
  • Choose hardwoods wisely. The wood you use for the fireplace should have been stored in a high, dry place for at least six months prior to burning. Look for woods that are dense, such as oak — avoid woods that are resinous, such as pine. These can create more creosote in your chimney.
  • Never overload the fireplace. Smaller fires can create plenty of heat and pretty light while not burning too high or too hot. Place the logs on the metal grate at the back of the fireplace, and always use kindling to light the fire, rather than any sort of chemical product.
  • Invest in a spark guard. A guard made of metal mesh or glass doors can keep errant sparks from entering the room — remember, one small ember can be enough to ignite fabrics. A chimney with a very large hearth can provide peace of mind, too.
  • Keep the damper open when burning. Gases can accumulate very quickly if a fireplace is closed up too tightly. Always keep the damper open to provide continuous airflow.
  • Dispose of ashes properly. Improper disposal of ashes has been known to cause fires, which can be especially terrible since they often happen hours after the fire has been extinguished. Ashes must be thoroughly cooled and placed in a lidded container. Even though they are cooled, keep them well away from anything flammable, including linens or wood. The U.S. Fire Administration recommends keeping them at least 10 feet away from your home or any other building.
  • Remember safety features. A fire extinguisher is an absolute must. If you prefer to hide it away, there are many “firehouse” style boxes that are designed to fit in with any type of home decor. Install carbon monoxide detectors throughout the home, as well as smoke detectors.
  • Never leave a fire unattended. Never, ever walk away from a burning fire in your fireplace. Even if it seems like a very small fire that is perfectly safe, remember that it only takes one ember to send your home up in flames. Make sure the fire is completely out before you go to bed or leave the house.

Finally, remember the outside of your house. Put a mesh spark grate on your chimney, move all firewood at least 30 feet away from the house and keep the roof free of any leaves or debris. With a little attention to these details, you can safely enjoy your fireplace every night during the coldest winters.

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Shannon Dauphin Lee

Shannon Dauphin Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.