If you have big plans for cozy get-togethers around your wood-burning fireplace this winter, you’re not alone. The Hearth, Patio & Barbeque Association reports that more than half of US households have at least one fireplace or freestanding stove, and these household fixtures often turn into the centerpiece of a gathering.

When the weather is chilly, it’s hard to resist the soft crackle and inviting warmth of a fire in the fireplace. But fire, even when it’s contained and used for ambience and heat, is not something to be treated haphazardly.

You probably know to check that the flue is open and that the ashes from last weekend’s fire have been swept away before starting a new fire, but how much attention do you pay to what you burn?

Certain materials—even certain types of wood—burn much differently than a standard oak log, and if you’re not careful about what ends up in the fireplace, you could be dealing with a fast-moving disaster.

Keep reading to learn how to keep yourself and your family safe.

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Fireplace Safety

fire burning in fireplace

Starting a fire in your fireplace may seem simple, but a lot of things can go wrong. Burning the wrong materials can cause dangerous flame flare-ups and explosions, which can lead to devastating consequences like burns and house fires.

This may all sound a little alarmist if you’re accustomed to building fires for your family, but it doesn’t hurt to take a step back and really think about what you’re doing—even if you’ve done it hundreds of times.

When you light a fire in your fireplace, you have a contained (but still very live) fire inside your home. Fire is the result of fuel and oxygen combining at a heat source—this happens every time you turn the key in your car’s ignition or light a match for a candle.

It’s easy to grow complacent about things we encounter every day, including fire. But the reality is that fire can be incredibly dangerous, so let’s go over some of the ins and outs of what you’re dealing with when you start a fire in your fireplace.

Byproducts of fire

Any time fire—also known as combustion—occurs, the results are particulate matter and carbon monoxide, both of which are environmental pollutants.

Particulate matter is made up of tiny pieces of chemicals, soot, dust, and other irritants that can pollute the air in and around your home.

The smoke and soot from a fire is high in particulate matter, which is one of the many reasons it’s important to open your chimney’s flue completely before building and lighting a fire. The design of the chimney and flue directs smoke upward and out of your house.

Carbon monoxide is especially concerning, since it’s a poisonous gas that cannot be smelled, tasted, or seen. If your fire is well vented (e.g., built either in a fireplace with a wide-open flue or in an open outdoor area), you won’t need to worry too much about carbon monoxide—it will disperse into the atmosphere.

To prevent the dangers that come with accumulation of particulate matter and carbon monoxide, never build a fire without proper ventilation, and never run a gas-powered generator, gas grill, or other gas appliance inside the house or under an awning or covered porch.

Why are these byproducts so harmful?

Experts say that particulate matter can contain chemicals that can affect your lungs and your heart, and they have been linked to heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, heart failure, stroke, lung diseases, and cancer.

Particulate matter can be large enough to be seen by the naked eye, but the more worrisome components are so small that they can be inhaled and pass into the bloodstream.

Carbon monoxide can cause serious health problems or death. It can only be detected by monitors, so if you have gas-powered or wood-burning appliances in your home, install carbon monoxide detectors on every floor. Change the batteries twice per year.

How do you build a safe fire?

neatly stacked firewoodWet wood produces more smoke when it burns, which equals higher levels of particulate matter in the air. For that reason, only use dry or seasoned wood in your fireplace. For long-lasting fuel for your fireplace, try wood with a higher density, like rock elm, hickory, oak, or certain maples.

In desperate situations (like emergency power outages) or out of simple inexperience, it can be tempting to burn any flammable items you have on hand. Don’t do this. The risk of sparking, small explosions, and harmful fumes and byproducts is too great.

Good, safe fires take time to build. Start small and slow, adding kindling and larger logs as needed to keep the fire going. Never leave your fireplace unattended, and be sure to fully extinguish the fire before you head to bed at night.

Six Things to Never Burn in Your Fireplace

1. The wrong wood

stacks of pressure treated lumber

Not just any wood will do. Some woods are treated with potentially toxic chemicals in the production process, and those chemicals can release into the air when the wood is burned.

Don’t use pressure-treated, stained, painted, or glued wood in your fireplace. You should also be cautious of the condition of the wood. Older wood is more likely to have mold or rot, which should not be burned.

2. Allergenic plants

Plants may seem like natural fireplace fodder, but be careful, as some plants can be harmful to your respiratory system when they’re burned.

For instance, plants that contain urushiol oil (like poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac) can cause an allergic reaction when touched or burned. So, before gathering leaves or scraps from the garden, make sure you know what you’re grabbing.

3. Paper products

stack of pressure treated lumber

If you’re collecting junk mail, colored newspaper, magazines, gift-wrapping paper, or old cardboard to use in your fireplace, think again!

Though these things are flammable, experts advise not burning them anywhere (but especially not inside) due to the potential to release into the air toxic chemicals from the inks and the papermaking process.

4. Dryer lint

Dryer lint isn’t a safe fire starter. The various chemicals that can be present in it from your clothing, laundry detergent, or fabric softener can be dangerous when they’re burned.

5. Fuel accelerants

Gasoline, lighter fluid, or any other type of accelerant can be dangerous in a fireplace. These accelerants release fumes that can be toxic in an enclosed space, and they cause the fire to grow too quickly. Large fires are difficult to control and can easily escape the fireplace, compromising the rest of your home.

6. Charcoal products

charcoal briquettes

Although charcoal products make great fodder for a barbecue or grill, don’t use them in your fireplace. When charcoal is burned, it releases carbon monoxide. This isn’t a problem when you’re grilling hamburgers in your backyard or an open field, but it’s incredibly dangerous if you’re in a house or under a pavilion or other structure.

The Bottom Line

Burning the right materials is only the beginning for fireplace safety. Before you start your first fire of the season, contact a chimney service company to schedule a fireplace and chimney inspection and cleaning.

Creosote buildup in the chimney can cause a chimney fire, and unfortunately, creosote is not something you can see by looking up the flue. An experienced chimney sweep will need a camera and other tools to determine the services your chimney needs.

Once your chimney and fireplace are clean and ready for the cold weather, here’s what you’ll need to keep in mind:

  • Burn only dry, seasoned wood
  • Never leave a fire unattended
  • Never let a fire burn unattended overnight
  • Schedule an annual chimney and fireplace cleaning and inspection