How Safe Is Your Fireplace?


Cozying up near a fireplace is one of the joys of winter. It’s a peaceful scene, but keep safety in mind before you relax.

Many homeowners rely on their fireplaces and wood stoves during cold spells. This increased use leads to more potential hazards. Each year, about 24,300 fireplace-related fires are reported, with a combined $30 million in losses, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“Keep in mind when using your fireplace that chimneys can reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” says James King, field technical manager for Chubb Personal Insurance. “Those kind of temperatures pose a high risk to the structure around the chimney.”

Every year, following the first cold spell, King reviews loss reports of homes totally destroyed due to unsafe chimneys. Chimney fires often take several hours to burn or spread, and they can attack your home from the inside out. They are stubborn to extinguish once they spread into the structure, often leading to secondary fires after the initial firefighter intervention.

That being said, King recommends five tips to keep your fireplace or wood stove in safe working order.

  • Keep your chimney clean. Creosote (a by-product of combustion) is a flammable deposit that can build up on the inside of chimneys, and is a leading cause of chimney fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Cold, damp flues, unseasoned wood and restricted air supply all contribute to creosote buildup.

Get your chimney cleaned at the start of every season by a licensed, certified professional. The cost of cleaning is typically about $200 depending on chimney height and condition, King says, but it’s well worth it.

  • Properly dispose of ashes. Hot ashes should be disposed of in a non-combustible metal container with a lid. Wet down the ashes and place them outside at least 10 feet away from any buildings or decks. Ashes stay hot for days. Do not put hot coals or ashes in the garbage or in combustible containers like paper bags or boxes. If you have an ash trap, clean it out regularly since large quantities of hot ashes can build up and pose a fire hazard.
  • Ensure proper installation. Always use a licensed installer and be cautious about excessive and prolonged use of fireplaces. Insufficient clearances between flue box and framing can lead to fires in wall cavities and attic spaces. Also, cyclical and prolonged heating of combustible framing around a fireplace or chimney can lead to fire through gradual charring, followed by eventual combustion.
  • Keep combustibles away. Flammable objects should be kept at least 3 feet away from fireplaces inside your home. Use well-secured metal or tempered glass screens, and never leave a fire unattended.

On the outside of your home, use a chimney cap or spark arrestor to prevent sparks igniting the roof or nearby tree limbs. This can also stop animals and debris such as birds’ nests from getting in the chimney. Tree branches should be kept a minimum of 15 feet away from chimneys. Wood roofs should be periodically retreated with fire retardant.

  • Check structural integrity. Chimneys should be inspected at least annually to ensure they are structurally sound. Older masonry chimneys are susceptible to cracked mortar and tile liners, and metal liners and flues can warp and buckle under extreme temperatures.

Look for smoke in unexpected places, and listen for popping or cracking sounds in the flue or chimney—all signs of a structural failure or flaws. After an earthquake or seismic event, check structural integrity again. Intense movement can crack walls and chimney liners.

Keep everyone in your household safe by following these guidelines every year. Then enjoy your fireplace with more peace of mind.