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Fires require attention before, during, after
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- A warm, crackling fire may get people in the holiday spirit, but they should consider safety issues before striking the first match.
Herb Willcutt, safety specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said homeowners should attend to chimney safety, wood selection and insect concerns before, during and after fireplace season.
"Homeowners should inspect and clean chimneys annually or more often, depending on the number of fires each year," Willcutt said. "A professional can remove creosote buildup as well as check the exterior and flue liner of the chimney for cracks due to heat or a shifting foundation."
Willcutt suggested chimney caps to keep birds from nesting in the chimney and sparks from settling on the roof if large chunks of burning creosote are expelled out the top.
"Remove any leaves, especially around the chimney or near the home that could be ignited by a smoldering bit of fly ash," Willcutt said. "Do not burn newspapers, wrapping paper from presents, Christmas trees or other highly flammable materials in the fireplace. Those items can cause larger flames that will trigger a chimney fire."
Willcutt said most chimney fires will burn out naturally, but they should be watched closely with a water hose handy to spray the roof. Realize the potential for a chimney fire, especially if it is not cleaned regularly.
"The key to extinguishing a chimney fire is closing its source of oxygen. Some people can use a fireplace poker to close the damper or they may use a large piece of plywood or metal to place firmly in front of the fire," he said. "The more completely the fire is sealed off, the quicker the flames will stop -- from a few seconds to a minute. Inspect the flue soon after a chimney fire to make sure no blockage remains."
Willcutt encouraged people to have appropriate fireplace items handy. Keep screens up to protect the room from sparks and hot coals. Place a fire-resistant rug in front of the fire in case of a spark or rolling log. Use pokers and shovels to keep burning logs in position. Appropriate gloves can protect hands and arms when working with a fire.
"While fires can be very relaxing most of the time, when something goes wrong, it happens quickly and unexpectedly. People have to be ready to react fast," he said.
Fireplace wood characteristics
Oaks: Most preferred because they burn well, have low ash content, high heat per cord, minimal popping and creosote buildup;
Hickory: Greatest heat source, but pops more, sometimes expelling coals; Ideal for inserts and for cooking during power outages;
Pecan: Heavy creosote producer, not a good choice for fireplaces;
Pine & Cedar: Lighter woods and therefore not ideal for fireplaces; produce more creosote buildup than hardwoods.
Bob Daniels, Extension forestry specialist, said wood plays a major role in controlling creosote buildup in a chimney. Dry wood produces much less creosote than green wood. A hot fire results in less creosote buildup than a smoldering fire. Hardwoods generally produce less creosote buildup than pine or cedar.
"Oak logs are probably the most preferred woods for fireplaces and inserts. They produce a good burn rate, a low ash content and high heat per cord. They do not pop and have little creosote buildup," he said. "Hickory produces the greatest amount of heat per cord and burns well but pops, sometimes expelling coals from the fireplace if a screen or door is not in place. It is slightly higher in creosote buildup than oak. Hickory works well in fireplace inserts where the popping is confined and coals will linger for hours after the wood has burned."
Blake Layton, Extension entomology specialist, said insects and spiders may enter the home in firewood. He recommended knocking pests off as you move wood from older piles to a second location and before bringing pieces into the house. Termites will be a real threat if homeowners pile wood against a house.
"The longer a pile of firewood stays in one place, the more insects and spiders will take up residence in or around them," he said. "The longer firewood is stored inside a wood box, the more likely insects will become active inside. Cold bugs brought in the house with wood will become active once the room heat warms them up. Putting wood directly onto the fire minimizes the chance of bugs escaping into the house."