Getting Fired Up About Fireplaces

 By Diane Tait

After a long hot summer and unseasonably warm autumn, cooler temperatures are finally forecast for northeast Florida.  When the temperature drops into the forties and fifties at night, many homeowners choose to light their fireplaces for the first time.  Not surprisingly, it’s also the time of year when the incidence of house-fires sees a sudden spike.  Before you light that first fire of the year, I thought I’d take the time to give you a few words of advice that can help you keep the fire in your fireplace in its place.

Santa isn’t the only thing that can come down your chimney. –  So too can soot and debris.  Before you light a fire, you should thoroughly inspect your home’s chimney inside and out.  From the outside take note of any cracks, loose bricks or missing mortar.  Any of these signs of deterioration could well extend to the inside of the chimney as well as the outside.  If your chimney has no cap or wire mesh covering it, you should also look inside it to see if any nest material or dead bird or animal is down the stack.  The last thing you want to happen when you light your first fire of the season is to have the smoke boil into your home instead of wafting out of the chimney because it’s blocked.  Also of concern is creosote which can build up only to catch fire in chimneys that haven’t been cleaned for years.  If it’s been more than a couple of years since you had your chimney cleaned, now is the time to have it swept.

Damper and flu check – Every fireplace has both a damper and a flue.  The damper is the movable plate that resides above the fireplace just beneath the flue.  When the damper is closed, it slows the heated air that would otherwise go straight up the chimney.  It’s also designed to keep errant gusts of wind from shooting down the chimney to blow ashes and embers out of the fireplace.  You open the damper on most fireplaces by pulling the lever toward you and close it by pushing it away from you.  Before you light a fire, you should make sure the damper works properly by opening and closing it.

The flue, otherwise known as the chimney lining, is the pipe that runs from the fireplace to the top of the chimney.  The purpose of the flue is to make sure that smoke, sparks, ash and noxious gases go straight up the chimney instead of into your home.  It also helps protect the chimney itself from the hot gases given off by the fireplace.

Is your fireplace a clean machine? – Two things that can prevent peak performance of your fireplace are creosote and ashes.  Creosote is a tar-like substance that builds into a thick, gooey coating that can catch fire inside the chimney if the conditions are right.  It also tends to restrict the airflow in the chimney.  Cleaning this and the ashes in your fireplace are important first steps before you get down to the process of starting your first fire of the season.  However, it’s actually preferable to leave a 1-inch layer of ash at the bottom of the hearth.  That’s because hot embers that wind up nestled in the ash bed tend to burn longer.  This in turn adds heat to the hearth that helps keep the fire burning.  It also protects the floor of the fireplace.  What you don’t want is to let the ash get so deep that it touches the base of the fireplace grate.  Doing so robs the fire of needed airflow.   

What’s the best way to get a fire started? – Before you start piling logs into your fireplace there are several steps you should take first:

1.      Make sure the damper opens and closes smoothly and is free of any obstructions.  Leave it in the open position.

2.      Take a fireplace match and light it.  Hold it beneath the damper and flue to make sure that the smoke goes up the chimney.   Extinguish the match before proceeding to the next step.

3.      Next, crumple up balls of newspaper and place them beneath the grate. 

4.      Add some kindling atop the grate, either lengthwise or in a crisscross lattice.

5.      Arrange two logs atop the kindling that are laid parallel with the grate, making sure you keep them 2-3 inches apart.

6.      Place additional kindling between these two logs.

7.      Place two additional logs atop the first pair but perpendicular to them.  Again, you’ll need to keep them several inches apart so the fire can breathe.

8.      Light the newspaper beneath the grate and step back.  You shouldn’t have to do anything other than watch the fire burn from this point on. 

Mistakes to avoid with any fireplace – While fireplaces add a bit of rustic charm to any home, never forget the fact that anytime you have fire, there’s a chance for it to get out of control.  Here are several mistakes you should avoid when operating your fireplace:

1.      Keep kids and pets well away from the fireplace.

2.      Keep flammable material away from open flames.  All it takes is one spark to waft out of your fireplace to set a room ablaze.  If you like to hang Christmas stockings on the mantel for the holidays, think twice if you plan on lighting the hearth.  You should also take down any flatscreen TV that’s mounted above the fireplace, since it can void the warranty on many models.

3.      Don’t build too big of a fire.  Small fires are charming.  Big ones are a fire hazard.

4.      Make sure you have a working fire extinguisher nearby and know how to use it.

5.      Make sure that the logs in the fireplace can’t roll out of the hearth onto the floor.  This means if you plan on adding a yule log, make sure it can’t roll forward once the smaller logs beneath it burn off.

6.      Always make sure the fire is out before you retire for the evening.

7.      Make sure your smoke alarm and carbon monoxide alarm are working and have fresh batteries.

8.      Wait at least 24-hours before clearing ash out of your fireplace to make sure that there aren’t any hot embers lying in the ash waiting for the right conditions to rekindle.

Diane Tait owns and operates A&B Insurance.  To find out more about how you can save money on boat insurance, go to her site.


  1. I once burned a hole in my living room carpet by shoveling ash that hadn't quite cooled into a bag.

  2. Great article! I love the part about "how to avoid mistake when making a fire.


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