How to Prevent Chimney Fires and Other Helpful Winter Fire Prevention Tips
When it’s cold outside, there's nothing better than lounging in front of a nice, cozy, crackling, fire. In fact, research shows that in many markets, fireplaces are a top feature homebuyers look for. They’re beautiful, fun to decorate, and perfect for hanging stockings. I think we can all agree that they tend to make a house feel like “home.” And while they do add beauty and character, they also add risk. If fireplaces aren’t properly operated and maintained, they can become very, very dangerous.
According to FEMA, each year more than 900 people lose their lives as a result of winter home fires. These fires also result in over $2 Billion in property damage. And they’re not limited to fireplaces; fires can start from unlikely things like Christmas decorations, space heaters, candles, and cooking appliances.
So before you cuddle up and get comfortable, string Christmas lights, or light a candle, review some of the things you can do to proactively help ensure your family stays safe in the winter and all throughout the year
Dirty chimneys are the main reason chimney fires start. As wood burns, and condensation occurs, a black or brown residue called creosote forms on the inside walls of the chimney. It’s highly combustible, and if it builds up and the internal flue temperature is high enough, a chimney fire could start. According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, there are things that can encourage the buildup of creosote, such as restricted air supply, unseasoned wood, and cooler than normal chimney temperature.
If you’re considering a home with a fireplace or wood-burning stove, before you move in, have it inspected by a certified chimney specialist. Chimney sweeps are not just fictional characters in Mary Poppins; they’re professionals who are trained to inspect and clean the chimney and vent—which is necessary for preventing a chimney fire. If you’re not familiar with a reputable chimney sweep in your area, the Chimney Safety Institute of America offers guidelines to help you find a certified specialist.
Once you know that your fireplace is in safe operating order, there are a few things you can do to ensure proper usage.
- Have your vents and chimney serviced once a year—before winter—to ensure fireplace safety.
- Keep flammable items at least 3 feet from the fireplace when in use. This includes things like blankets, rugs, stockings, Christmas decorations, etc.
- If your fireplace has glass doors, keep them open when burning to give the fire enough air to ensure complete combustion. This keeps creosote from building up.
- If you have mesh doors, use those when burning the fire to keep embers from flying out.
- Check to make sure snow and ice haven’t blocked the chimney or vents. This can be especially dangerous with gas fireplaces, as a blocked vent will not allow dangerous carbon monoxide to escape.
- On a related note, make sure your carbon monoxide alarms are working properly.
- Use the proper fuel for your fire. Never use flammable liquids—instead use only seasoned hardwood. For wood stoves, use dry, seasoned wood pellets.
- Once the fire is out, close the glass doors or screen to prevent burning embers or particles from falling out. Never leave a fire unattended. Always extinguish the fire before going to bed or leaving your home.
- Make sure your fire alarms are in good working condition.
- Let the ashes cool before throwing them out. Place them in a metal container that is designated for ashes (avoid emptying into a trash can). Pour water over them, and cover the container. Keep the container at least 10 feet from your home or other structures.
Safe Christmas Decorations
Christmas decorations are another common winter fire hazard.
- Ensure displays are set up safely. Avoid hanging stockings in front of a working fireplace, don’t place candles near flammable materials, and make sure all electrical cords are in good condition.
- If you’re pulling the tree and lights from the attic, make sure the cords are still good before you use them. FEMA reports that one out of every three Christmas tree fires is caused by electrical problems.
- Make sure the tree is at least three feet from any heat source.
If you have a live tree, keep it watered. Dry trees are much more flammable than well-watered trees. This video from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) shows the difference in a watered tree and a dry tree when exposed to fire.
- Plug decorations directly into outlets, instead of in strings of extension cords.
- According to the NFPA, candles are responsible for over 10,600 fires each year. If you love the look of a candle, consider those that are battery operated. If it’s the wintery scents you’re after, try scented wax plugins like Scentsy as an alternative.
Space Heaters and Other Alternative Heat Sources
From oil-filled radiators to new infrared heaters, these portable heaters can also pose a threat to your new home.
- Make sure it is working properly and free of damage.
- Keep items at least three feet away from heaters to provide a clear safe space for use.
- Never leave a space heater unattended. Turn it off at bedtime and when you leave the home
- Only use heaters that are approved by recognized testing labs. You’ll recognize these with UL or FM markings on the packaging.
- Never plug portable heaters into an extension cord; plug them directly into the wall.
- Don’t attempt to repair a broken cord, just replace the portable heater instead.
- Heaters with automatic shutoff functions are best. This function will insure that the heater turns off if it tips over.
Prevent Winter Fires When Cooking
The NFPA reports that two-thirds of home fires start with food and cooking materials.
- Don’t leave cooking food unattended. Spills can catch fire easily.
Frying is the most dangerous method of preparation because of grease fires. This risk is heightened during the holidays when frying turkeys. Make sure you read the instructions and follow all directions when frying a turkey. The NFPA has great in-depth tips for turkey fryer safety. Or take some advice from William Shatner in this turkey fryer safety video (you have to take advice from Captain Kirk!).
- Don’t use your oven to heat your home during the winter.
- Don’t use outdoor grills inside.
- If something catches fire, don’t attempt to fight the fire yourself. Use a fire extinguisher, but be careful throwing water on fires. Grease fires can become fireballs when the water hits them, creating huge out of control fires quickly. If you have a kitchen fire, call 911 and evacuate your home.
When it comes to winter safety, some preemptive preparedness can help ensure your home is both cozy and safe. Spread the word to help make sure your friends, family and neighbors are aware of how they can help prevent fires this winter.