If you haven’t realized, here in North Texas, “WINTER” has officially arrived. It’s true. Go look, I’ll wait…I put the word in quotes because, really, if you’ve lived here for more than a few days, you know that the weather is always changing. It can be sunny and mild one day, only to be bitter cold and icy the next. Is your fireplace up to the task?
In enduring the wild swings of temperature, precipitation, and wind, you may be tempted to crank up the old fireplace to create some warmth and ambiance…HOLD ON! There may be some issues to attend to first, and you don’t want to start more of a fire than you intended, fill your home with smoke, or worse, carbon monoxide. Think about it. You are attempting to purposely start a fire INSIDE your home! I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
In an effort to mitigate the horrific possibilities of the extreme, I am going to list a few, very basic, items to check on before you strike that match, or flip the switch. It goes without saying, (although I’m definitely saying), if you are in doubt on any of these, have a professional inspector or chimney sweep look things over beforehand. You can always put on a sweater.
Is your flue open?
No, that’s not a euphemism for the zipper keeping your pants on. A flue is the duct inside your chimney. Its job is to contain the smoke, gases and flame produced by the fire, and direct them up and away from your home. You can probably understand why you would not want an obstruction in there. It is good practice to use a flashlight and check that the damper is open, and that no critters have decided to make your chimney their winter abode; unless you like smoked squirrel, and if so, carry on.
Is your flue clean?
While looking for potentially tasty morsels in your flue, you might as well check on the cleanliness of it as well. Creosote buildup is the culprit here. This is especially true for fireplaces that burn wood, as creosote is a substance which forms on the walls of the flue as a byproduct of combustion (think about the smoker at the pit BBQ place). It is usually brown and flaky to shiny and black, and can be highly flammable. Any deposits over ⅛” or 3mm thick should be professionally cleaned.
What ELSE may burn?
Check on the mantle and around the fireplace hearth for things which may inadvertently catch on fire. Holiday decor, forlorn Christmas gift boxes and stockings; fabric, such as drapes, tapestries, pillows and blankets; newspaper, kindling and firewood, all have the potential to make your life warmer than it needs to be, unless it is moved away from the fireplace before you light it up. Fireplace screens are also a must to keep sparks in the firebox where they belong.
Did you overload?
While it may be tempting to build a huge, raging fire in your fireplace, resulting in coziness and fellowship, doing so will likely cause a huge, raging fire outside your fireplace, resulting in screaming and running about. This is not what we want. In order to avoid the latter, avoid putting more fuel in the fireplace than can be contained. Further, don’t add flammable liquid, like lighter fluid or gasoline. The coal that you may have received from Santa is a no-no too. If you have a gas fireplace, do not modify the burner in any way, and don’t try to burn anything “extra” in there. Keep the size of your fire small and manageable. You’ll thank me later. Or not.
While these may seem to be common sense precautions for safe fireplace enjoyment, according to a 1974 report by the Consumer Protection Safety Commission, https://www.cpsc.gov/content/cpsc-issues-fireplace-safety-tips, some 14,000 house fires were caused by fireplace accidents. I would suggest a quick peruse of that report because it is pertinent, short, and has some additional tips. Although it was written over 40 years ago, people today are even more prone to be in pursuit of instant gratification. Don’t be that guy. When it comes to starting a fire in your own house, be careful, or you just may get more than you intended.
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