After a long summer during which fireplaces are ignored, many homeowners approach winter with the idea that because their fireplace hasn’t been used in months, it is ready for burning logs. They look forward to a cozy home with a fireplace burning brightly. But many factors can affect that happy scenario. If a chimney is not capped, something might have entered the chimney since the last fire was burned, like debris, a bird or small animal.
No matter if you're burning simulated logs or real wood, many hazards are associated with fireplaces and inspection is important before lighting up for the winter. Loss of property and lives can result in careless log burning and thoughtless disposal of ashes from real wood fires. Protect your home and your family by looking over this list of safety precautions and suggestions before your first fire of the season.
It's important to have your fireplace cleaned and inspected for obstructions and damage by a professional before the winter season begins. The chimney liner should also be checked for problems and wear. Creosote, a buildup in the chimney, sometimes causes roof fires. Getting the chimney cleaned will minimize your chances for such a mishap. Dirty chimneys contribute to air pollution as well. Creosote buildup is caused by many factors including fires that burn slowly, using artificial logs, and burning wood that has not been seasoned.
Fireplaces without chimney caps allow sparks to escape, which could possibly trigger a fire in your neighborhood especially if you live in a warm, dry climate. Traveling embers from your home may even start a fire in another location away from your residence. Spark arrestor caps are typically stainless steel and house mesh that controls sparks, ash and other dangerous hazards. Arrestor caps are required by law in some areas of the United States. Many arid Western states use arrestors that meet California code. California style small mesh arrestor caps incorporate tightly interwoven wire gauze with openings that measure about one half inch. Functional arrestor caps are the most common type chosen by home builders but decorative caps that compliment a home’s style can be special ordered. While the caps are usually put in place for the reasons mentioned, they also will prevent wild animals, birds and debris from entering the chimney. A bird that enters a chimney is sometimes unable to find its way back out. Trapped inside, they may try to escape into the room.
Real Wood And Synthetic Logs
Would you be surprise to know that some artificial or synthetic logs emit less carbon monoxide than real wood? These seemingly unnatural products carry pluses that actually make them a better alternative for than burning wood. Synthetic logs are a more efficient way to warm the home when compared to wood logs. While these are pluses, some synthetic logs can burn unevenly, putting out higher levels of monoxide than expected. Check out the packaging and ratings for the product you use. Precautions should be taken and instructions should be followed when using synthetic logs to optimize safety. Do not break a log in an effort to increase the fire or use more than one log at a time. And don’t forget to compare products. Stax charred-look logs by Duraflame produce half the pollutants of a comparable wood fire and it burns with a crackle sound, great for ambiance. Green products not only burn more efficiently but produce less smoke than a wood fire burned for the same duration. 
Fireplace openings should always be covered by a metal screen or glass to contain embers inside the fireplace and keep them from spreading into the room. Metal screens are intended to prevent logs from rolling out onto the floor. Child safety screens or doors are an important addition to any home with young children. Designed to prevent access to flames and possible injuries, they come in many styles and price ranges and are well worth the investment. Movable metal screens have a potential to get hot when positioned in front of a roaring fire for any length of time. Touching a hot metal screen can also burn hands, damage wood floors, or melt plastic items that come in close contact. Metal screens require extreme caution. Many glass screens are available that are intended for aesthetic purposes and not for safety. Look for tempered glass when buying glass fireplace screens. Glass doors should be left open while the fireplace is in operation. 
Always dampen hot ashes and empty them in a metal container. Store the container at a safe distance from the house. Ashes are deceptive and even those that have seemingly died out can cause a fire.
Inside and Outside The Fireplace
Do not throw paper, or anything other than approved fireplace materials into a fire. Certain substances can emit a variety of toxic fumes.
Do not use any chemicals or fluids in the fireplace as they will coat the inside of the chimney. Burning items not designed for fireplaces can be dangerous.
Avoid the placement of flammable decor close to an open fireplace. Many a candy container has melted in a Christmas stocking hung too close to the fireplace. Other holiday decorations should be placed a safe distance from burning logs to avoid an accidental fire.
The Best and Safest Fires
Before starting a fire, always open the chimney flue, which will allow air to feed your fire and make it burn more brightly. An open flue also allows smoke to escape.
Begin by creating a small fire to heat the chimney and insure a good draft. Once a good burn is established build on a small wood fire by placing logs on the grate at the rear of the fireplace. Overloading the grate with too many logs can handicap proper burning.
Leave the damper open as long as there are hot ashes in the fireplace. Closing the damper can cause hot ashes to actually ignite into unintended fire that could spread into the room. Do not leave an extinguished fire unattended until you are certain there is no threat from burning embers.
If you don’t like the cleanup required with a fireplace but like the atmosphere of one, look into free standing or wall mounted electric fireplaces and stoves. Many models require no hookup or ventilation yet produce realistic flame effects with glowing logs and ember beds.