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There is nothing cozier than a nice warm fireplace beautifully lit with a big hot cup of cocoa. But there is one sure way to ruin the ambiance and that's when your fireplace smoke fills the room and your smoke detector goes off. Take it from one who knows. It's a good idea to have a little knowledge about fireplaces.

First off, the experts say you shouldn't be burning the flames for more than 5 hours tops. It's not a furnace or a wood-burning stove -- it's there for ambiance.

It's a good idea to leave a window open a little bit when you have a fire going. It will help the fireplace -- and you -- "breathe" a bit better. The colder air coming in from the window will go up the chimney.

You can check to make sure the smoke will go up the chimney properly by lighting a match, quickly blowing it out and watching the smoke to see whether it's going up and out or just hanging around in the room.

Sparks have a tendency to fly. That's why it's a good idea to get a nonflammable rug at a fireplace supply store and put it in front of the fireplace. That way if something does spark and fly out your whole carpet won't have a meltdown.

They have pokers for a reason -- to move the logs around. Your hand and arm as well as your fingers have a tendency to burn and you know if you even burn yourself slightly with an a iron or something, it hurts! So keep hands and extremities out of the fireplace.

Also avoid sticking your head in the fireplace. Besides getting covered with soot, you're likely to bonk it badly.

The world of wood

You might need a little basic knowledge of the world of wood. It's measured by cords. A cord of wood is defined as a stack of cut firewood that measures 4 feet tall by 4 feet wide by 8 feet long, or any other arrangement that equals 128 cubic feet. The individual pieces must be stacked side by side rather than the looser crisscross style.

Who would have thought that wood holds water? Well, it does, and the more water the worse the wood is for burning. Freshly cut wood is composed largely of water. Not only is this “green” wood difficult to ignite, but burning it can lead to a dangerous buildup of creosote, the cause of chimney fires.

Properly “seasoned” firewood is wood that has been cut to length, split, and allowed to air dry for at least six months, or until the moisture content dips to around 20%. Dry wood will appear grayish in color and the pieces will begin to exhibit splits and cracks on the ends. Compared to freshly cut wood, seasoned wood feels light for its size.

Dr. John Ball, Professor of Forestry at South Dakota State University, says it’s a common misconception that burning soft woods, such as pine and cedar, leads to dangerous creosote buildup. As long as the firewood is properly seasoned, it can safely be burned in a fireplace or stove regardless of species.

Fireplace coals can stay hot for up to 3 days so you want to wait at least that long before you decide to clean them up. Don't use a vacuum. Just the tinest spark can cause a fire.

The National Fire Protection Association recommends that chimneys be swept at least once a year at the beginning of the winter to remove soot and debris. Find a certified sweep in your area via the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

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