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

Now that winter weather has arrived, it 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 during peak months, December, January and February. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), failure to clean heating equipment and chimneys was the leading factor contributing to home heating fires, approximately 28%. There is an average of 22,300 fireplace or chimney fires in the U.S. per year, causing an average of 20 deaths, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and home fires still cause the majority of all civilian fire deaths, injuries and property loss as highlighted by the NFPA. Most of these losses are preventable with routine fireplace and chimney inspection and maintenance at a minimal cost compared to the after effects of a fire!

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. The Chimney Safety Institute of America states that indications of a possible chimney fire can include:

  • a loud cracking or popping noise
  • a lot of dense smoke
  • an intense, hot smell

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.

Below are some steps you can take to protect your family and property during the winter season.

  • 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. If your chimney has not been cleaned and/or annual maintenance not completed on your heating system this is the best time to schedule an appointment.
  • 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:

  • Wood 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.
  • All chimneys should be crowned with a spark arrestor.
  • Properly dispose of fireplace ashes.  Use a metal container with a tight-fitting lid over a noncombustible surface or an ash pit. Ashes should be properly cooled and/or doused with water as an extra precaution.

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

Kelly Lespier is a Premier Account Specialist at Chubb Personal Risk Services.

The opinions and positions expressed are the authors’ own and not those of Chubb. The information and/ or data provided herein is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice. Insurance coverage is subject to the language of the policies as issued.