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Be sure to keep decorations a safe distance from fireplaces.

Be sure to keep decorations a safe distance from fireplaces.

Practicing fireplace safety can help to prevent home fires this winter

Colder weather has arrived and with it the desire of homeowners to settle in front of a cozy fire.

But before lighting those logs, experts from fire protection districts across the region recommend taking a few simple precautions now that can save a lot of potential grief later. Chief among them is taking time to have your chimney inspected and cleaned.

Tom Vineyard, chief of the O’Fallon Fire Protection District, said his department responds to about 20 emergency calls annually when a buildup of soot and smoke from wood-burning fireplaces causes a flue fire. His advice is to have a reliable chimney sweep inspect and clean your fireplace and chimney annually, preferably before the first fire of the season.

Vineyard noted that even fireplaces with gas logs should be looked at periodically to ensure the system is working properly.

“Gas burns cleaner than wood so there’s not as much buildup,” Vineyard observed. “But that doesn’t mean you can simply sit back and assume everything is okay.” He suggested checking the manufacturer’s service recommendations to learn how often inspections are needed.

Flue fires are especially dangerous at night, Vineyard said. Flames can break through into the attic and spread rapidly and smoke detectors may not sound an alarm as quickly when a fire starts in the flue.

As for how to select a well qualified chimney sweep, Roger Herin, fire marshal at the Monarch Fire Protection District, suggested checking to see if the person is a member of the National Chimney Sweep Guild. The organization’s website lists members within a given radius of whatever ZIP Code is entered in its locator tool and contains various other tips, including how to hire a sweep and the importance of checking the credentials of the individual technician sent to your home.

Non-wood-burning fireplaces should come with information saying the fixture meets standards of the American Gas Association, UL or other nationally recognized testing agency, Herin added.

Other tips include:

• Having a carbon monoxide detector in place, as well as a smoke alarm for homes with gas fireplaces. The carbon monoxide detector should be located in a bedroom near the fireplace or in an area close by to ensure its warning will be heard if it goes off when people are sleeping.

• Keep current. The recommended life of a carbon monoxide detector is five to seven years. Check the owner’s manual for replacement instructions.  If that document is no longer available and/or the age of the detector is unknown, err on the side of safety and replace the detector.

• Do not use flammable liquids to start a fireplace fire.

Use dry, seasoned wood. The best wood for a fireplace fire is dry, seasoned hardwood. Fresh-cut and/or soft wood creates more creosote build-up that increases the possibility of flue fires.

• Dispose of coals properly. Improper disposal of coals from wood-burning fireplaces can lead to potentially disastrous fires as much as three days after the fire is thought to be out. The ideal method of disposal is to place the coals in a metal trash container placed well away from the home. Coals always should be wetted down even if they appear to be cold. Under no circumstances should coals be stored in a garage, where other flammable materials likely will be present.

• Don’t forget to check that the damper is open before building a fire in the fireplace. It sounds basic, but its a common mistake.

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