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The information presented on this page was originally released on December 20, 1999. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Make Good Decisions About Fireplace Safety
By Laura Martin
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Starting a winter fire in a cold fireplace may present potential hazards for homeowners. As temperatures drop, the warmth of a fire may attract kids and may threaten birds who have made nests inside the chimney.
Dr. Frances Graham, a housing specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, offered a few safety tips when starting a fire at home.
"Make sure the damper is open before lighting a fire," Graham said. "Be sure that you keep the fire in the fireplace by having a safety screen or tempered glass door large enough to catch flying sparks."
Burning wood produces an oily black residue called creosote that can build up inside chimneys.
"Clean your chimney regularly because creosote buildup can ignite your chimney, roof and the whole house. Also, have your chimney inspected annually for damage and obstructions," Graham said.
Graham also advised parents to keep children and pets away from the fireplace. The heat and bright flames may attract young children and curious pets.
"Fires should be supervised. Make sure the fire is completely out before leaving the house or going to bed. A working smoke detector is always important because that doubles the chances of being able to detect a fire outside the fireplace," Graham said.
Carefully place holiday decorations away from the fireplace and mantle to avoid having them catch on fire. It burns quickly, and the sudden flare-ups may spread outside your fireplace. Don't burn Christmas wrappings or plastic items. These items may give off toxic chemicals in the smoke and cause additional sparks to go up the chimney, Graham said.
"Never burn trash, paper or green wood in the fireplace because these materials can cause heavy creosote buildup and they are very difficult to control," Graham said.
When removing the ashes, put them in a tightly sealed metal container, Graham said. Do not remove ashes with any type of paper products because they can quickly catch fire.
Some types of wood are better than others to burn. Hardwoods are best for firewood because pine has a high resin content that increases creosote buildup.
Dr. Bob Daniels, Extension forestry specialist, said the most commonly used firewood in Mississippi is oak and hickory.
"Different kinds of wood have different heat values," Daniels said. "When people purchase firewood, they should try to get as much heating value as possible for the money. That means buying denser species of wood like oak and hickory. Buy wood that has been split, stacked and dried for a few months. If people are getting the wood free like from their own forestland or a fallen tree, it's OK to burn most any hardwood. Never burn your discarded Christmas tree in the fireplace."
"If possible, stack firewood in a place where it is sheltered from rain. Don't stack it against the house. It's a good idea to stack firewood on the ground, so that air can circulate underneath and through the pile," Daniels said.
Another suggestion for homeowners is to protect the top of the chimney with a guard that keeps out birds and small animals and keeps in sparks that could ignite your roof.
Dean Stewart, Extension wildlife specialist, said homeowners should be aware of bird nests in their chimneys or stovepipes and take the proper precautions.
"Most nest materials are mud and straw built in the cracks of a brick wall," Stewart said. "When it rains, the nest comes apart and ends up on top of the damper above the fire pit. If the straw catches on fire, it can cause a chimney fire.
"Early in the fall, homeowners should clean out their chimney to prevent fires," Stewart said. "If birds are a problem, attach or weigh down a cloth wire mesh over the top of the chimney. Preventing the birds from nesting is the best thing."