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I grew up in a relatively small suburb in the Midwest, and though we didn’t have our own backyard corn crop as you might think, my parents strongly believed in the value of hard work. Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, my dad would take his trusty chainsaw around the community and cut huge, fallen trees into manageable rounds and then haul the rounds back to our woodshed. The able-bodied teenagers in the family would then split these rounds into fireplace-sized logs using a sledgehammer and wedge as payment for offenses such as backtalk, forgetting chores, and being overall nincompoops (my muscles were huge in high school, but that’s another story…) Once the woodshed was filled up to the top, my dad knew that we had enough wood to heat our house for the winter.

I will stand by my opinion until my dying breath that a warm fire after a cold day is the best feeling in the world. Seventy degree temperatures from a standard heating system feel nothing like 70 degrees from a well-maintained fire.

Our family had a large, freestanding wood-burning stove fireplace located in the family room, and it ate through a lot of wood, so naturally, it required a lot of maintenance. It also demanded a certain level of consciousness in order to keep our family safe from the harm that could come from a huge box of fire sitting in the living room. Here are a few ways to stay safe with your fireplace.

1. Think of the air.

Before you light up your stove for that first time in the fall, you need to give your chimney a little bit of love. Look up through the chimney to see if there are any nests or debris such as twigs or dried leaves clogging up the shaft. Animals like the warmth that comes with living inside of someone’s house, so they tend to build nests inside of chimneys that aren’t currently in use. Cleaning out your chimney is fairly simple (chimney brushes are available at most large hardware stores), but if you’re not comfortable doing that, you can always contact a professional chimney sweep.

Wood smoke carries with it a lot of dangerous air pollutants if you’re not careful. You should not see smoke curling out from your chimney or the place you insert your firewood, but if you do see smoke, you need to act quickly. Make sure that the damper is open so that the smoke can exit your house safely.

Be sure to use dry wood as wet wood will smolder and create a lot of excess smoke. Ideally, you should let your wood weather out over a season of six to 12 months before you use it so that all of the internal moisture can dissipate. Keep the wood out of the elements, and only use pieces that are lightweight and produce a sharp sound when clapped together. If it sounds more like a thud, your wood is too wet and will create a lot of smoke.

If you don’t want to have the issue with smoke at all, look into self-contained units, fireplace inserts, or composition logs. These are more air-friendly alternatives to a traditional fireplace, and several of them even nestle inside your existing structure without producing any additional smoke.

2. Build your fire the right way.

Believe it or not, there is a right way and a wrong way of building your fire. The right way will heat up your house within a few minutes and cast a warm glow on the room (and your soul – again, my opinion), and the wrong way could spell disaster.

Start by making sure that your damper is open, and remove any excess ash or debris from previous burnings. Then crumple up several pieces of newspaper or non-glossy white paper and place them in the bottom of your fireplace, making sure to avoid colorful paper, high-gloss paper, or plastics that could produce toxic fumes and smoke. Create a teepee formation over the paper using small pieces of dry kindling such as twigs or small branches, and light the paper. Blow on the base of the flames from a safe distance to get the fire hot enough to light the kindling. Once the kindling is burning brightly, place small logs on top while gradually increasing their size as the fire grows.

A good fire produces small amounts of light-colored smoke, so if you’re seeing a lot of dark grey smoke coming from your chimney outside, you need to make some adjustments inside. You might need to let in a little more air by opening up the damper further, or you might need to adjust the kind of wood that you’re burning so that you get a cleaner burn.

3. Prepare and prevent.

These last tips come from common sense and first-hand experience.

  • Fire needs fuel (air) in order to stay lit, but make sure that you’re being safe about it. Keep your glass door open while you have a fire burning so that your fire has adequate fuel, but utilize a screen to keep sparks from landing on your surrounding flooring.
  • Use a shovel to remove ashes and never a vacuum cleaner. You might not know that there are hot coals until it is too late.
  • Keep a very close eye on children and pets that may become too interested in the fire. Circumstances can escalate incredibly quickly where curiosity is concerned.
  • DO NOT put anything flammable near the fireplace – even if you just want to dry it out.
  • If it becomes too smoky in your room, open a window!

Chances are pretty good that you have standard heating in your home and only occasionally use your fireplace, but that just means that you need to be extra careful when you do use it. The best way to enjoy a fire is to make sure that you follow the proper safety procedures every single time. And, of course, the second best way is after you’ve shoveled two feet of snow and you’re curled up with a cat in your lap and a good book.