Cozy up to the fireplace

But avoid the wrong kind of fire

But avoid the wrong kind of fire

December 01, 2007|By JULIE E. GREENE

The sight of the flames licking the air, the crackle of the wood.

The beauty of a virtual fire is that you don't have to worry about burning the house down.

But the flames won't provide a heat warm enough to cover you like a blanket and the fireplace is limited to the biggest screen in the home.

Real fireplaces require real maintenance.

Professional chimney sweeps can be hired to check the chimney and fireplace, but let's face it ? not everyone is going to do that.

Chimney fires are usually attributed to one of three problems ? improper installation, lack of regular maintenance or improper use, said Mike Weller, Hagerstown Fire Department's fire safety educator.


If you're looking to buy a house, get the chimney inspected professionally, said Dave Meyers, owner of Chimneys Unlimited south of Sharpsburg. Meyers, who inspects, cleans, repairs and builds chimneys, said he often gets calls from new homeowners who discover the house they bought has a chimney that's in bad shape.

House fires from improper use result when things are placed too close to the fire or there isn't a metal mesh screen to prevent embers from popping off the logs onto furniture or people, Weller said.

Dampers should be fully open so smoke doesn't back into the home, Weller said.

But when the fireplace is not in use, dampers should be closed and should seal tight, Meyers said. If they don't, homes can lose 30 percent of their heat out the chimney, costing an average of $400 a year in lost energy for a U.S. home.

Proper maintenance

An occasional fireplace user should have the chimney and fireplace inspected before use every year and have the chimney cleaned at least once a year, Weller said. The more often the fireplace is used, the more the chimney needs to be checked to make sure it's clean.

Professionals will use cameras as well as spotlights and mirrors to inspect the chimney, Meyers said.

Checking the chimney requires someone atop the roof with a flashlight and another person at the fireplace with a mirror, Weller said. Use the mirror and flashlight to reflect light to check the sides of the chimney for creosote buildup and for cracks in the ceramic chimney liner.

Both problems can lead to house fires.

Cracks can allow heat to escape to the framing of the home, potentially causing a fire. Creosote is a flammable waste from burning wood. Creosote, a black tarlike substance, coats the chimney liner and can catch fire.

Also, check the chimney for blockages that could result in odorless carbon monoxide backing into the house. Weller recommends a chimney cap to prevent birds and squirrels from building nests in the chimney and a carbon monoxide alarm near each sleeping area.

Check the hearth for cracks, too. If there are cracks or mortar is missing, an ember could lead to the wrong kind of fire, Weller said.

Meyers said wood trim should not be too close to the fireplace or it can get hot.

Hot ashes should be disposed in a metal container that is stored away from the house. The ashes should be doused with water.

The right wood

The best way to slow creosote buildup is to burn the right wood ? well-dried, cured hardwood.

It can take a year or two from the time wood is cut for it to be cured, or seasoned, so it will burn hot, Weller and Meyers said.

Wood that doesn't burn hot leads to creosote buildup. The moisture in wood and resins such as sap in softwood lead to creosote, said Aaron Cook, watershed forester with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service.

There are several hardwoods that grow in the Washington County area that make good firewood once cured, Cook said.

The best wood is black locust, Cook said. Black locust is dense and takes longer to burn, so it produces more energy. Black locust is fairly common in abandoned farm fields because it's one of the first species to grow in a fallow field.

A more commonly found hardwood in the Tri-State area is chestnut oak, also known as rock oak. It's common in the mountains and burns well. Typically, when someone is selling a truckload of seasoned hardwood, it's a load of chestnut oak, scarlet oak and northern red oak from established forests, Cook said.

Much of the firewood cut locally is deadwood from gypsy moth damage in the early 1980s, Cook said. But whatever the source, make sure the seller is providing wood that is seasoned or cured.

Red maples became established in a lot of areas damaged by gypsy moths, Cook said. Red maple isn't as dense as oak, so it takes more red maple to heat a home to a preferred temperature.

Hickory can be hard to find in the area, but there are other woods with pleasant odors such as black or wild cherry, which smell like almonds, Cook said. Orchardists occasionally cut pear, apple or ornamental cherry trees to sell as firewood, all of which have pleasant odors when burned, he said.

The longer the stack of wood is left to dry, the more moisture evaporates. This results in more efficient burning, Cook said.

The stack should be covered with a tarp, raised off the ground ? on pallets ? and kept away from the home. Wood stored close to a house can lead to fire or wood boring insects getting into the structure, experts said.

Weller said there have been many times he's seen house fires which started when people emptied ashes near the wood pile, which caught on fire and then the house caught fire.

Clean sweep

To look for a certified chimney sweep in your area, go to the Chimney Safety Institute of America's Web site at

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