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Chimney Safety and Building a Fire Tips

Posted: October 6, 2015

By: Paul LaGrange, LaGrange Consulting

Building a fire properly keeps your chimney “healthy” by reducing the amount of creosote buildup. It also ensures that your marshmallows come out “toasted” instead of “hickory flavored” - a good fire has minimum smoke and maximum warmth. Here are some recommendations on how to get that done:

1. START WITH GOOD MATERIALS

Wet, “unseasoned” wood is hard to light, hard to keep burning and contributes to creosote buildup in chimneys. “Seasoned” wood has been cut, split and allowed to dry and makes for a much better fire. If you are buying firewood, be sure to ask how it was stored and for how long. Firewood should be seasoned for a minimum of one year (two to three is best) and the surface should look grey or dark. Well seasoned wood is brittle and will have cracks running through the cut surface.  

Seasoning and moisture content are much more important than the type of wood. Seasoned soft woods like pine and fir will burn more quickly than hard woods. Contrary to popular belief, properly dried soft woods do not deposit more creosote in a chimney than hardwoods.  

2. BUILD A GOOD BASE

Fires need plenty of oxygen from both the bottom and sides to burn well. Be sure that the flue damper and combustion air inlets are open, the fireplace is clean (no ashes of previous fires) and the grate (or andirons) are in place. Crumple up six to ten full sheets of newspaper (no color pages) and push them under the grate. The paper should be loosely wadded – not compacted – so it can burn quickly. Place three to five sticks of fatwood kindling (specially treated, quick burning pine) on top of the grate. Place three smaller, well dried pieces of firewood on top of the kindling in a slanted pattern. Add another three pieces of similar firewood across the first layer, slanting them in the opposite direction. Light the paper sticking out along the edges and front of the grate. Let this assembly start burning well before you add any more firewood.  

If the fire goes out or doesn’t start well do not despair. Your firewood may have gotten damp or have more water than expected. In this case, you can (carefully!) add more paper, using the poker to push it under the grate. The burning paper will help dry out the wood and it will eventually catch fire. DO NOT use flammable liquids such as gasoline, lighting fluid, or kerosene to start a fire. 

3. KEEP IT GOING

If your fireplace has a metal curtain, pull it across the opening to block sparks, but leave the glass doors open while the fire is burning. You should add more firewood as necessary to keep the fire going. Wearing a sturdy pair of welder’s gloves (available at hardware stores) and placing pieces carefully is preferable to tossing them from a distance. Avoid adding too much wood at one time – this will smother the fire you have going and create lots of smoke. If you make this mistake, use the fire tools to move wood off the top of the heap and stand it on end in the back corner of the fireplace. You can add it back on once the fire is burning again. Periodically shove the wood around a bit with a poker so that it gets air and burns evenly and completely.  

4. PUT IT OUT

You should never extinguish a (fireplace) fire by pouring water on it. Cooling a fire down quickly increases gas and water emissions and produces more creosote. It also causes thermal shock in the flue tiles which decreases their ability to insulate and protect the chimney. 

It's best to let a fire burn out on its own, which can take anywhere from 10 to 15 hours. To speed things up you can use fire tongs to move unburned pieces of wood away from the coals. If possible, stand them on end in the back corners of the fireplace. Keep the damper open and the screen pulled closed until you know that the fire is completely out. Once it’s over, there should be no smoke or heat coming from the ashes and they should be completely gray.

5. CLEAN IT UP

The last important step is cleaning the ashes out of the fireplace so that future fires will get enough air. Use a metal scoop and bucket in case any glowing embers remain. If you still have a few hot embers, you can add water to the bucket to put them out.

Ashes can be disposed of with the regular household trash, or – even better – used in your garden as a soil amendment. Wood ash has a high pH and acts in the same manner as limestone to balance our naturally acidic soils. The recommended application is 20 lbs of wood ash (around a 5-gallon bucketful) per 1,000 square feet of area. Wood ash acts much more quickly than limestone in raising pH, so be careful not to overdo it. If you have a lot of extra ash, you can add it to a compost pile.

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