Relaxing with the family in front of the fireplace during the cold winter months is a wonderful way to pass some of the cold evenings we face here in Michigan. While we can get great pleasure out of this activity, if we do not properly maintain our fireplaces and chimneys, it can lead to a tragedy.
One problem with fireplaces is the buildup of creosote inside the chimney walls. Creosote is the byproduct of burning wood, but when it builds up inside the chimney, it can cut off ventilation and catch fire. If you use your fireplace, you should have your chimney cleaned and inspected at least once a year.
As you prepare for your first fires of the season, make sure you go over the basics. Open the damper to allow the smoke (as well as other dangerous gases) and heat to rise up and out of the chimney, move flammable decorations away from the area and keep small children back from the fireplace as you prepare for lighting the fire. Never use flammable or combustible liquids to “help” the fire start, and avoid the temptation of getting the fire too large.
Inside the house, we have a rule about open flames. All combustible materials should be kept at least three feet away from any open flame or heat source. This means the fireplace, so even after a cold evening of building a snowman and lighting a fire in the fireplace, you, your kids and your gloves should all be kept back three feet from the fireplace. The fireplace screen should be used so that sparks and embers cannot leave the fireplace. Supervision is a must, so based on the ages of your children, you must determine if an adult must be in the room in which the fire is burning, or if the children are old enough to understand the hazards involved.
Don't leave the home or go to bed with a fire still burning in the fireplace. Use only dry wood or other commercially available fireplace products (but only after reading the directions) in the fireplace. They are not designed to burn cardboard, trash or wrapping paper, as this can cause a premature buildup of creosote inside the chimney.
Be sure that all ashes have thoroughly cooled before you dispose of them, preferably in a metal container with a tight-fitting lid. Once the ashes are in the container, it is best to store them outdoors and away from the home.
Once you have read and planned for your upcoming season of fireplace fires, you have now completed the “Fireplace 101 Refresher Course.” Enjoy the season!
Tom Kiurski is training coordinator for the Livonia Fire Department.