Fireplace & Wood Stove Safety

December 16, 2016 

Fireplace & Wood Stove Safety

            After our visit from the polar vortex last week, I hope I have enough wood split to use in our fireplace for heating over the winter. I’ve hear it said that firewood is an excellent heat source, it warms you five times. First, when you cut it... second, when you split it... third, when you haul and stack it... fourth, when you burn it... and finally, when you clean up after you burn it.

            All joking aside, it’s hard to beat the warmth of a glowing fire in the fireplace. But it’s also important to remember that fireplaces and wood stoves can create a hazard in the home if they are not managed properly.

            Every year, about 12,000 Americans die in residential fires, according to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association. Because of the risks associated with fires, it's important to understand and practice safety tips when using indoor fireplaces and woodburning stoves this winter.

            Put a shield around the fireplace to prevent sparks from flying out and starting a fire. Glass grates, which enclose the fireplace entirely are the most effective. Wire mesh grates, though not as impenetrable, also stop most sparks.

            Make sure the area surrounding the fireplace is clear of flammable items to guard against fire in case sparks escape the fireplace. The best hearths are made of non-combustible material such as brick, tile, flagstone or linoleum.

            Clean fireplaces, woodburning heaters, stove pipes and chimneys annually. Ash or creosote build-up in the flue or pipes can catch fire if the build-up has accumulated over time and the fire temperature is hot. Reduce creosote by burning big, hot fires instead of small, smoky ones that lead to build-up.

            Recent advertisements promote logs you can burn in your fireplace to reduce creosote buildup. While these may reduce some kinds of creosote, they do not take the place of an annual cleaning.

Hire a chimney sweep or clean the chimney flue and dampers once a year with a big brush.

            Choose the type of wood you burn depending on the type of fire you want. If a fireplace is for aesthetic reasons, burn cottonwood, maple or elm, which burns quickly and creates bright flames. If the fireplace is used for heat, burn harder, heavier woods such as oak and ash. Avoid pine or other evergreens because the wood contains more resins which contribute to creosote buildup in your chimney. They also pop and crackle a lot which can lead to sparks that escape your fireplace.

            It is possible to bring insects into your home along with firewood, but can be avoided. If wood is kept below 50 degrees, insects living in it will remain dormant. However, if taken indoors and allowed to warm up, insect activity resumes and they may emerge in the home. Emerging insects can then move out of the firewood, wander into the rest of the house and become a nuisance.

            The best way to avoid invasion is to store the wood outside in the cold until it's ready to be burned so insects don't have a chance to warm up and become active. Store wood away from the house and under a cover, such as in a woodshed, unheated garage, utility building or under a sheet of plastic or sheet metal roofing to keep it dry. Leave an air space between the wood and covering.

            Do not spray firewood with pesticides. Storing wood outside until you are ready to use it will prevent insect problems indoors. If firewood insects do emerge indoors they are not likely to attack wood in the home. Simply vaccum them up.

            Correctly manage woodburning stoves or heaters. Often, fires from woodburning stoves start when the residents are gone or asleep. To guard against this, adjust the air intake vents before leaving the stove alone. Don't leave woodburning stoves alone unless the heater can be prepared for an amount of unsupervised time.

            One final precaution, be careful when cleaning ash from your fireplace or wood burning stove. Every winter there are cases where devastating house fires were caused by improper disposal of ash from a fireplace or woodburning stove. Make sure there are no hot embers in the ash. Let it completely cool before removing it and then store it in a metal pail or container. Never dump it in with your regular trash.

            For more information on fireplace and wood stove safety, contact your local UNL Extension office.