How to Make Sure Your Fireplace is Safe For The Winter

There’s nothing cozier, more relaxing, or more romantic than a fire quietly roaring away in your fireplace. As beautiful and soothing as they are, fireplaces can also be dangerous. One must always adhere to fireplace safety when arranging fireplaces and remain sensible when lighting a fire. Unfortunately, there are terrible incidents that still occur due to accidents, negligence, or simply from an overall lack of awareness.

In one instance, tragedy struck a family when, on Christmas Eve, a fire destroyed a historic home in the midst of a massive renovation. The fire took the lives of three young children and two grandparents. The children’s mother and her partner were the sole survivors. According to the mother, the ashes were never properly disposed of that night, as the little girls wanted the fireplace to be clear for Santa’s descent down the chimney. While these events were indeed tragic, we can all learn to take better precautions, how to properly use a fireplace, and apply safer countermeasures to enjoy the warmth of a fire while at home.

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It is extremely important to have your chimney inspected at least every 2 years.

Fireplace safety begins in the chimney, in the area behind the flue where not much is visible to the naked eye. If you’re wondering how to get your fireplace ready for winter, we strongly suggest you contact a reputable chimney sweep to have a thorough look at your chimney and fireplace. There are chimney sweep scammers out there, so do your homework and make sure the person you hire is a reputable one. The chimney sweep will start by inserting a special brush into the fireplace and up the chimney. This is done to remove any soot and debris on the bricks. After this the flue, damper, smoke chamber, smoke shelf, and firebox are all cleaned.

The entire process should not take more than an hour, although carefulness and safety should always be prioritized. Once that process is completed, the chimney sweep will most likely carry out a smoke test by lighting a small fire in the fireplace. This will ensure that everything has been properly cleaned and that your fireplace is safe to use. It is advisable to keep records of all reports. When your chimney sweeper is present, take the opportunity to ask questions on how to use your fireplace during the winter, and even the likelihoods of your particular chimney’s issues and needs.

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Burn safely

Never use flammable liquids to start a fire in your fireplace. It’s best to use starter logs and newspapers. Make sure you have a strong, secure grate upon which to place your logs. A fireplace cover for winter is important since hot air will draft cold air into the mouth of the chimney which may prompt ash being kicked up and embers to escape.

Having a chimney will warrant you need to learn how to prepare a fireplace for wood for burning. It is important to note that not all wood is suitable for burning. Be sure to use only seasoned hardwood, since wood that has not been seasoned or kiln dried sizzles and fails to start a large, hot fire. Instead it creates excess smokes and promotes creosote buildup. Creosote is the tar-like substance produced from the burning of wood in your fireplace and chimney which will produce soot and tar-saturated smoke. The tarry remnants are extremely flammable and can remain ignited on the walls of your chimney, even after your wood has burned. Never burn cardboard boxes, trash, or debris in your fireplace. Never leave your burning fireplace unattended.

Learning how to close a fireplace is paramount, so there should always be a plan regarding how to extinguish a fire if necessary to ensure a proper closure. It is important to extinguish the fire before going to bed or leaving the house, and it is imperative that you allow ashes to cool fully before you dispose of them. In fact, it is best to leave ashes in your fireplace until the following morning to properly cool, if you had enjoyed a fire from the night prior.

Carbon monoxide is a furtive toxin, so fireplace safety warrants awareness of this compound. The smoke from burning wood contains carbon monoxide, so in order to prevent this toxic byproduct from entering your home, it is important to leave the flue open overnight. This enables a draft to carry the compound out into the atmosphere, instead of sinking down the chimney and saturating the room. Also, always be sure to have a fire extinguisher nearby in case a fire goes beyond your control.

Protect your home, inside and out.

Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors on every level of your home as well as inside and outside of sleeping areas. Test your detectors monthly and change the batteries at least once a year. You may want to consider installing more state-of-the-art, or recently released smoke detectors for added protection.

Smoke detectors are effective countermeasures on fireplace safety, although there are other potential risks that may exist near your home. Below is a list that will help expand your understanding of how to get your fireplace ready for winter.

  • Firewood should be safely stacked at least 30 feet away from your home.
    • Even if your home is built of concrete or brick, it is unwise to leave stacks of wood immediately beside your home, since that places a fuel load in close proximity to the household.
  • Keep the roof clear of leaves, pine needles, and other debris.
    • If a tree deposit leaves on your roof regularly, consider a leaf blower to remove the debris, or hiring a professional service if the debris is in a risky location or simply inaccessible.
  • Your chimney should be covered with a mesh screen spark arrestor. If there are any visible branches over or near the chimney, they should be removed.
  • Fireplace coals remain hot for long after the fire has been extinguished. Use a shovel to scoop the ashes into a metal container. Store the container far from combustibles, combustible surfaces, and wood floors. You may also want to invest in a special fireplace vacuum. Many fireplaces have little trap doors at the bottom towards the back. The ash can be disposed of down the trap. At the base of the chimney, perhaps in the basement, you will find another door containing the ash and you can clear it out from there, if preferable. Never use a regular household vacuum to clean up ashes, because live coals may remain in those ashes.
  • You should clean the firebox (the area where the logs burn) at least once a week during the months you use it. It is actually suggested that you leave about an inch of ash because it acts as insulation, allowing the coals to heat faster and retain heat. The fireplace should be thoroughly cleaned out once the fire season is over.

How to start a fire

  1. Begin by opening your fireplace’s adjustable damper all the way, if your fireplace has one.
  2. Crumple single sheets of newspaper or other tinder into grapefruit-size balls, or twist them into batons.
    • The shape of twisted batons bears more surface area, thus a more thorough ignition.
    • Crumpled balls will not burn immediately, although they will have a more enduring flame as kindling.
  3. Then, you will place one or two articles of tinder underneath the grate, or in between the andirons on the floor of the firebox.
    • Be sure not to obscure the tinder, since you will be igniting this first.
  4. Next, lay some kindling. Place sticks upon the tinder, in a lattice structure. Imagine a crisscrossing of the kindling that lays upon the tinder that you made. Leave spaces between the sticks so that air may sufficiently circulate and be drawn to the flame.
  5. Once the kindling is organized, place a couple of thin, split logs on top of the tinder and kindling. Keep in mind that air good circulation is essential to a successful fire. You do not need a firestarter, or any type of fire accelerant to light a fireplace.
  6. Light the tinder with a long match or fireplace lighter.
  7. Once the fire has started and the small logs are burning, add two more small logs and then a larger one. As the warm air rises up the chimney and into the room, cool air is sucked up into the spaces between the logs, fanning the flames.
  8. It’s important not to over-feed the fire, which can smother the flames or cause it to blaze out of control. This is vital for fireplace safety since a healthy fire is fed steadily and practically for an assured, safe fireplace session. According to Martha Stewart, “Tinder is the first thing to catch fire, so it should consist of a highly flammable material such as brown bags, twisted newspaper, applewood chips, dried hemlock and birch twigs, birch bark, and the feathery tips of dried pine branches. … Tinder ignites the kindling.” She advises against using paper with colored inks since it can leave a flammable residue in the chimney, yet most newspapers today are printed in color. She adds that “Dry corn cobs, pinecones that are well-dried and free of sap, and fatwood (highly flammable, resin-laden sticks from coniferous trees) are also good fire starters.
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What wood burns best?

Firewood needs to be seasoned or kiln-dried before it is usable. Freshly cut wood is still full of water and will burn unevenly. It also produces excessive smoke and ash. An indication that your wood is fully dried and ready to use is the tiny radial cracks along the cross-sections of a split log. The best woods to use are hardwood logs from broad-leaved deciduous trees. Hickory, oak, maple, ash, beech, and birch are great choices. In fact, a birch is an exceptional option as it leaves virtually no ash. If you’re looking for a fragrant wood, you might want to try cherry, pear, or pecan. Stay away from softwood logs from needle- and cone-bearing trees. They should only be used for tinder and kindling since they burn very quickly. Needle or cone-bearing trees contain a considerable amount of sap that can be ignited as an accelerant and are therefore counterintuitive to fireplace safety.

 Save energy: keep heat from escaping

Even when a fireplace damper is closed, the sealing is often ineffective. Adding a fireplace cover for winter, like glass doors or a fireplace shield, can efficiently keep outside cold air from entering, as well as warm air from exiting your chimney. Since one must wait for the fire to be completely out and the ashes to be cold before closing the damper, the glass doors are quite intuitive with fireplace safety. Believe it or not, they serve another purpose beyond looks! If the damper is closed too soon a smoldering fire still produces combustion gases that contain carbon monoxide. And, while it may seem obvious, it is important to reinstate the fact that closing the damper should never be done until the fire is completely out. Allowing the ashes to cool before removal while ensuring embers are exposed to air, and not left to smolder, is another way to close a fireplace safely.

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Necessary fireplace tools and gadgets

Before one is ready to use one’s fireplace, it is essential to have the proper fireplace equipment to ensure fireplace safety. Below is a bulleted list to help ensure you are prepared to know how to prepare a fireplace for wood burning.

  • A sturdy screen is necessary to keep embers from flying out into the room.  Fireplace tools are generally sold together and included you will see a brush, a poker, a shovel, and tongs. We strongly advise not to skimp here, as you can really get what you pay for. You will want something durable and sturdy that will not fall apart while in use.  Specifically check all handles to make sure that they are secured, or that they are in one with the rest of the tools.
  • You might also want a log carrier or large basket to store your fire logs and kindling near the fireplace.
  • An ashcan and a fireplace vacuum are great tools for a less-mess clean-up.
  • A sturdy grate or andirons onto which you will place your wood will ensure that the logs stay put and don’t roll off.  The grate should have sides deep enough to keep the wood in place.
  • Firebacks help retain the heat in the firebox so that it does not all go up the flue.
  • A night shield or guard will keep the heat from the home from escaping up the chimney overnight – this can be a specially designed shield or metallic, fire-resistant blanket or, if your fireplace has glass doors, shut them after the fire is out and you are ready to retire for the night.

Fun facts about fireplace ash

  • Hide paving stains
    • According to This Old House ash absorbs wet paint splatters on cement; sprinkle the ash directly on the darkened spot.
  • Ash is a great compost enricher
    • Sprinkle ash into your garden before you add the organic compound to your soil. The ash will enhance its nutrients but adding too much can ruin the mix. Be sure to do this during spring. A tablespoon per square yard is plenty.
  • Ash is a great pest deterrent 
    • When spread evenly around your garden beds, ash’s alkalinity will repel slugs and snails.
  • Ash is a natural ice melter
    • It won’t leave a residue like salt, which can also harm your pet’s feet. It won’t hurt the soil or concrete beneath either.

Bottom line

Ensuring fireplace safety is one of the most important things to do every winter. Knowing how to properly manage and use your winter fireplace can prevent accidents from happening. The outside of your home may require attention as well as the inside, so remain as meticulous as possible while addressing potential or evident hazards.

Tinder, kindling, then fireplace-appropriate wood should be arranged in consecutive order and ignited without any accelerants or articles that may release toxic compounds as byproducts. Your dampers should be adjusted accordingly and your chimney should be free of structural damage, as well as tar-free upon the chimney walls. A chimney cover, like a shield or glass doors, will help create a more energy-efficient household as well as prevent carbon monoxide from entering your home. Be sure to allow your chimney ash to cool before attempting to dispose of it.

Frequently asked questions

Q:

How do I know my fireplace is safe to use?

A:

Ensure your chimney has no damage, or excessive tar-like build up on its walls. Your dampers should be opened fully to facilitate circulation. If you notice your dampers will not fully open and that your chimney has concerning characteristics, you should consult a chimney expert for further insight on your fireplace safety.

Q:

How do I know my fireplace is opened or closed?

A:

Here’s how to close a fireplace: Your fireplace may have dampers which allows an effective flow of air, circulating from inside of your house out towards the chimney flue. If your dampers are installed from the mouth of the fireplace, within your reach, then your dampers should be visibly open or closed. If your dampers are not visible, it may be located on the top of your chimney. In this case, you may have to use a peripheral method (view through the chimney, or view from the roof where the dampers are visible) to determine if it is open or not. You may need another person to monitor the dampers while another person turns the crank for the damper. After all, you don’t want to get any fireplace snow.

Q:

Do I need a fireplace inspection?

A:

If you are unfamiliar with determining chimney or fireplace integrity, it would be a good idea to get inspection done by a chimney professional. Even for homeowners familiar with chimney or fireplace maintenance, there may be an obscure method of construction that requires expertise of a professional. If you are a first-time homebuyer, strongly consider seeking a professional as chimneys in need of repair may warrant extra costs down the road.

We wish you all many warm and cozy fireside evenings this winter. Please be safe!

Amanda Push contributed to this article