Written By: Thursday, January 18th 2018

There is nothing like the feel, and smell, and ambient warmth of a roaring, crackling woodstove fire. There’s just something different about that kind of natural heat.

But of course, as we have seen with several of the rash of house fires this season in Ontario, woodstoves also bring with their benefits, certain inherent dangers. The use of a woodstove for heat and/or esthetic comfort, can be completely safe if certain guidelines and advise is adhered to.  If key safety factors are ignored, the results can be terrible.

The two main factors to keep in mind for woodstove and fireplace safety, are installation, and maintenance.

If properly installed, and regularly and professionally maintained, along with proper use of course, there is no reason you can’t enjoy years of great use and warmth from your wood-burning appliance.  But there are a number of things to keep in mind when considering a woodstove or fireplace for your home.  The Canadian Safety Council has published some online information to steer us in the right direction.

Getting Started

Make sure that your appliance has been installed properly. Most places have strict codes regarding the installation of wood-burning devices. Assuming installation is correct, don’t overlook the chimney. Many fires can be prevented with proper maintenance and cleaning of the chimney. Whether you have a metal or masonry chimney, begin with a visual inspection, preferably by a professional, so that the gases and smoke from your fire will vent as they should.

A professional will also be able to double check your clearances, that the wall pass through is installed and meets code, that the chimney is adequately supported at the bottom, and that the stovepipe is free of creosote. Creosote can become a problem if not cleaned out. It can ignite if it builds up. You can reduce your likelihood of building up too much creosote by not burning unseasoned wood and by avoiding slow smoldering, smoky fires.


Preparation Tips

Preventative care and a well-designed area for burning wood can reduce the likelihood of an unintended incident. For example, when installing a woodstove, situate it on a non-combustible surface such as a tile floor. Adequate ventilation is very important for preventing carbon monoxide poisoning; make sure that a door or window is easily accessible from your wood-burning area.

Consult a professional about proper installation of stove pipes. If you are using a fireplace, regularly have the chimney cleaned and serviced by a professional. Keep an area of at least one metre around the stove or fireplace clear of anything that might catch fire or overheat.

Know what to expect from your wood-burning unit. Stoves are designed to heat larger areas, and emit warmth from all sides. You may need to install a heat shield behind or beside the stove to prevent heat damage to any nearby walls. A fireplace, meanwhile, is primarily decorative and often does little more than provide some heat to the room in which it is located.

Firing it up

Before lighting your fireplace or wood-stove, open the damper to allow for good airflow. Keep the damper open until the fire is out and the ashes are cool enough to touch.

Build your fire with a small amount of dry, seasoned wood to keep the flames under control. Resist the temptation to overload your fireplace or stove. Burning too much wood at once can cause tar and creosote to build up in your chimney or stove pipes, which creates a fire hazard.

Never use highly flammable materials such as wrapping paper or gasoline in a woodstove or fireplace. These substances can create dangerous fireballs in an instant and, just like burning too much wood at once, can cause a buildup of flammable materials in your chimney or stove pipes.

Always use a screen in front of the fireplace, and never leave children unattended by a fire. Have a fire escape plan for your house and regularly review it with your family.

Other considerations

Keep a working fire extinguisher in an accessible location. Check your smoke detectors monthly, and replace the batteries as necessary. You should also have a carbon monoxide detector in your sleeping quarters to alert you if there is a buildup of the deadly gas. Carbon monoxide buildup can occur if the area around your wood-burning unit is inadequately ventilated. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can include headaches and nausea. If your carbon monoxide detector goes off, get out of the building immediately and find out what needs to be done to correct the ventilation problem.

With the holiday season fast approaching, remember to take decorations such as stockings off the fireplace before use. If you have a real Christmas tree, water it regularly and keep it a safe distance away from your woodstove and any open flames.

Be responsible and use common sense. Avoid being intoxicated or impaired when around fire. Never leave your house or go to bed when a fire is still burning.

When it’s time to clean the ashes out of the fireplace or wood-stove, wait until they are completely cool and scoop them into a metal bucket; never place the ashes in a plastic or cardboard container. It can take up to three days for embers and ashes to completely cool.

Enjoy your wood-burning appliance safely, and it will reward you for years.