Whenever fire is introduced into a house, it must be treated with great respect. The most immediate hazards of a fireplace or a wood stove are that the fire may escape directly, in the form of hot coals or sparks; that its radiant heat may be great enough to ignite nearby combustible materials; or that flammable residues in the chimney may catch fire and spread to adjacent wood framing or to the roof. All three of these dangers can be virtually eliminated by careful installation and operation of the wood-burning system, plus a regular program of inspection and maintenance.
The installation of a stove or a fireplace will usually be governed by local building and fire codes. These codes often require that the design and materials of a wood stove meet standards set by local authorities or be approved by recognized agency, such as underwriters’ Laboratories (UL).
Usually, fire codes also provide specific instructions for stove placement. It is important to maintain a safe distance between the fire and nearby walls; wood can ignite at temperatures as low as 200º Fahrenheit. – much less than the 800º temperature radiated by some stoves. Therefore, most codes require protective shields behind and beneath a stove and its flue, to dissipate heat before it reaches combustible wall or floor materials. Most codes also specify the thickness of the masonry in a fireplace and chimney and the amount of air space that is required between the masonry and combustible interior walls.
Regular inspection, cleaning and maintenance are the best insurance against chimney fires and fires resulting from damage to a stove or flue. Thoroughly check the entire system before lighting the first fire of the season, and repeat the inspection every month or so.
Proper accessories are needed for the safe operation of any wood-burning system. Andirons or a cradle shaped grate will keep burning logs from falling or rolling beyond the firebox opening; a metal container provides safe transport of ashes, which may contain hot coals. Every fireplace requires a close fitting screen or glass doors t prevent sparks and hot coals from popping out.
Safe operation also requires that you pay attention to the fire itself. Stoves should never be allowed to become so hot that the meta glows. Heat this intense can cause dangerous cracks. Burn only the fuels for which a stove is designed, avoiding any substance that could increase the heat of the fire—starter fluids, coal, cardboard and especially trash such Christmas-tree boughs and plastic wrappings. And never store extra firewood so close to the flames that it might ignite outside the firebox.
The two major types of smoke detector are easily installed and reasonably priced, and can operate with either battery power or house current. Ionization detectors use a cloud of atomic particles to conduct electricity between two terminals; when smoke is present, the flow of current is reduced, triggering the alarm when smoke particles interrupt a light beam inside the unit.
An ionization detector, because it is particularly sensitive to smoke from clean-burning fires of paper and wood, is the better alarm to install in the sleeping areas of the house, but it may give too many false alarms if it is placed in the same room as a stove or fireplace. A photoelectric detector, in contrast, reacts more slowly to a clean-burning fire, but its quick response to the heavy smoke of smoldering fire makes it a better choice for areas near fireplaces or stoves. However, it can too give false alarms, and though the best location would seem to be in the same room as the fire, such a detector should usually be installed in an adjacent room or hall.
Local fire officials often are willing to help you plan the placement of smoke detectors. After they are installed, all smoke detectors should be tested once a month, and cleaned occasionally to keep dust from reducing their sensitivity.
The best response to almost any home fire is to call the fire department and leave the house immediately, but you still should have equipment on hand for fighting small fires that can be quickly controlled. Baking soda or salt can be effective to smother a spark smoldering in a rug. A bucket of damp sand kept near the stove will slow down a fire out of control.
A type of multipurpose extinguisher, however, is the bets equipment to use for fighting stoves and fireplaces’ fires. This kind of extinguisher, which sprays the fire with a dry compound (usually ammonium phosphate), is better than a liquid extinguisher because liquid can cause a stove, chimney or flue to cool so rapidly it cracks; liquid can also injure the user with rebounding steam and ash. Keep at least one extinguisher with a five to eight-pound capacity near the door of any room that contains a stove or a fireplace, and read its instructions so that you know how to use it. Check its pressure gauge regularly; the gauge should register more than 100 pounds per square inch. If it does not, the extinguisher must be recharged and replaced.
You need an established plan of escape in the event of fire, using regular exits at ground level of emergency ladders from upper floors. Make sure all family members know the plan, and include and assembly point for meeting outside the house so that you will know when everyone has exited safely.