Before You Cozy Up to a Winter Fire: Chimney and Fireplace Safety Tips

Barry DavisThe arrival of colder weather is a good time to conduct routine maintenance on your chimney and heating system.

Faulty heating systems are the second leading cause of residential fires. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 2/3 of those fires are caused by improperly maintained fireplaces, chimneys and wood stoves. There is an average of 22,700 fireplace or chimney fires in the U.S. per year, causing an average of 15 deaths, and total average losses of $112,000,000 annually, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Most of these losses are preventable with routine fireplace and chimney inspection and maintenance!

Chimney fires are typically caused when products of combustion condense on cooler chimney surfaces. The result is a build-up of a highly flammable substance called creosote. If the temperature inside the chimney flue becomes high enough, the creosote can ignite causing a chimney fire. Chimney flues are not designed to contain the high temperature of a direct fire. Flue materials can crack or separate and allow fire to contact the structural material of a home.

In addition, a poorly maintained fireplace or chimney can have openings that allow fire or hot gasses to escape into the structure. Incorrectly installed fireplaces or wood stove flues can allow fire or high heat to ignite the structure. Finally, combustible materials placed too close to a fireplace, such as furniture, rugs, decorations hanging from the mantel and even Christmas trees, can be ignited by the fire in the fireplace or unscreened embers from a wood fire.

What steps can you take as we approach winter to protect your safety and your property?

  • Have your fireplace, chimney, and oil fired heating equipment inspected, cleaned and maintained at least annually. Chimney sweeps are experts in inspection and maintenance of fireplaces and chimneys. The Chimney Safety Institute of America certifies chimney sweeps and has a member locator on their website.
  • Wood stoves should be maintained the same as a wood burning fireplace. Wood stoves should be installed at least 36” from combustible materials unless a heat shield is installed.
  • Gas log systems should also be cleaned regularly and maintained to remove build-up of deposits and ensure proper combustion.
  • Installation of a spark arrestor (a screen covering at the top of your chimney) can prevent hot embers from your fireplace from igniting roofing materials or combustible debris on the roof.
  • Carbon monoxide detectors are recommended on every floor of your home.

Additional considerations when using your fireplace:

  • fire in fireplaceWood burning fireplaces should always have a protective screen when in use to catch stray embers.
  • Seasoned hardwoods are best to burn. Softwood or unseasoned hardwood can create an excessive amount of combustible build-up.
  • Avoid burning a roaring wood fire in your fireplace, or using more than one manufactured log at a time. These can create excessive heat in the chimney and crack the flue.
  • Never leave a burning wood fireplace unattended. Don’t go to sleep or leave a property with the fire blazing away.

Being aware of how chimney fires start and how they can be prevented, as well as performing essential maintenance, will help you and your family to safely enjoy your fireplace!

Barry Davis is Assistant Vice President, Risk Consulting Client Service Leader with Chubb Personal Risk Services.

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