Winter came early this year, giving folks less time than usual to go through their usual fall to-do checklist. Unfortunately that list included one item than can not be put off indefinitely: Chimneys going unchecked before being put into use.

Above all else, chimneys should have an annual checkup. Schedule an annual visit with a chimney service professional to inspect all chimneys; many fire departments offer such services for free. This will keep you informed of their condition and help ensure they remain clean, operable and free of blockages. Also, remember the following:

Burn only seasoned hardwood. These woods burn the longest, produce the most heat and leave behind the least creosote. Creosote, a highly flammable substance, can build up on chimney walls, increasing the risk of a chimney fire.

Burn small hot fires, rather than prolonged fires that are cool and smoky. Smaller, hotter fires drive creosote up the chimney and away from the home.

Debris such as animal nests (or even lint, in the case of a dryer vent), can cause a back-up of harmful gasses in the home. Additionally, water seeping into a chimney can erode bricks and mortar and compromise the structural integrity of a chimney. Solution: put a cap on your chimney to prevent rain and animals from entering, and schedule an annual inspection to ensure all chimneys remain free from blockages.

Warm winters can lead to increased creosote buildup because long, cool, smoky fires are more common. However, homeowners may feel complacent about having an annual inspection since they didn’t use the fireplace often.

Take steps throughout your home to ensure fire safety. Be sure to always use a spark screen in front of your fireplace; use a metal container to remove fireplace ashes; install working smoke alarms on every level of your home; install a working carbon monoxide detector in your home; replace batteries in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors once a year; ensure proper floor and wall protection with gas and wood burning appliances; keep several multi-purpose fire extinguishers in the home; establish a family fire escape plan, and; hold regular family fire drills.

If you have any of these steps that you haven’t taken, don’t delay – deal with them now. Yes, there are several steps here, but most are inexpensive and can be done in a few minutes. That is a small price to pay to keep your chimney – and your family and home – safe from fire.

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