Having lived for five years in a home heated only by a wood stove, I am aware of the importance of maintenance, when dealing with anything fire-related.
1. Always make sure that your chimney is clean. As wood burns it creates gases which form a crust of creosote in the flue. Chimney fires are usually caused when the crust of creosote becomes thick and hot enough to catch fire.
Several things affect the cleanliness of your chimney - what you burn, how often and how long you burn, and what type of unit you have.
Chimney cleaning is not cheap, but it is worth the peace of mind it brings. A reputable chimney cleaner will first examine your chimney, and tell you whether or not it needs cleaning. The small fee charged for the examination is minimal.
If you have a wood stove, tap on the large stovepipe. If it echoes hollowly, it is most likely clean. If it echoes dully, it needs a cleaning. If this pipe ever gets red hot, you could be in serious trouble.
Yes, you can clean your own chimney, but it is dangerous for an amateur, and incredibly messy, if you do not have the right equipment.
2. If you have a wood stove, you must clean out the ashes every two to three days. Most modern wood stoves give you the option of a drop down ash reservoir. It's well worth the additional cost. It's best to leave a thin bed of ash, on which to build your next fire.
Fireplaces in new homes have ash pits which only need cleaning annually. If your fireplace was installed, after the home was completed, you may have to empty the ashes after each use.
A word of caution. When you remove ashes, store them away from the house in a metal container with a metal lid. When they are completely cold, you can spread them on the ground, dig them into your vegetable garden, or simply bury them.
3. Each year, before you start to use your fireplace, check for broken bricks or cracks in the mortar. Repair cracks and replace broken bricks using fireplace mortar only.
Make sure that the mortar is flush with the adjoining bricks.
If anything about your wood stove is causing you concern, do not use it. Get in touch with the manufacturer.
Fire and the heat it causes can so easily bring disaster to you and your family, so make sure all facilities, related to fire, are properly maintained and are, at all times, under your supervision.