How to protect your fireplace and chimney this winter

When Jongmin Kim moved from Flushing, Queens, to Woodbury three years ago, he was eager to use his brick fireplace. “A fireplace was something I always wanted to have,” said Kim, 51, a pharmacist. “I thought it would be nice on a cold fall or winter day to light a fire and sit with your family.”

Kim’s first fire instead turned into a crash course in what not to do, after fueling it with damp wood he had collected from his garden. “Pine has a lot of sap,” Kim said, “so it will produce a lot of smoke and soot, and it burns very quickly.”

These days, Kim, who has since become a volunteer firefighter at Woodbury, takes many steps to keep things running smoothly: he buys rather than collects wood, wears fire-resistant gloves and sweeps up ashes in an ash bucket.

Jongmin Kim, a volunteer firefighter, has safety in mind as he tends to the chimney of his Woodbury home.
Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Winter is approaching, and the people of Long Island look forward to cozy times gathered in front of the fire.

“It’s my pleasure,” said Stephanie Vetter, 75, a housewife in Huntington. “Netflix, a good fire and a small glass of wine, and I’m good to go.”

But it’s not just about throwing logs and putting your feet up. Security is crucial. These homeowners and pros shared tips for staying safe and toasty while using a fireplace.

Stephanie Vetter's fireplace is a key feature of her Huntington home.

Stephanie Vetter’s fireplace is a key feature of her Huntington home. “Netflix, a good fire and a little glass of wine, and I’m good to go,” she said.
Credit: Danielle Silverman

Safety first

There are more than 17,000 chimney-related fires nationwide each year, according to the Chimney Safety Institute of America. Creosote, a flammable residue formed by wood fires, is a primary source.

“Once it builds up, it can cause chimney fires if you don’t sweep the chimney and clean it out,” said Pat Sais, president of Massapequa-based Smokey Chimney and Maintenance.

Preventing and eliminating creosote is a key part of fireplace and chimney safety. According to the CSIA, a restricted air supply, unseasoned wood, and lack of cleaning can cause creosote to form, causing fires up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to melt metal liners.

Interview Questions

It’s smoke season for many: Flues, chimneys and fireplaces should be inspected annually, followed by cleaning as needed, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

“You want to make sure there are no cracks in the bricks,” Kim said.

Signs of a need for cleaning include black, oily spots in chimneys, difficulty starting and maintaining fires, a stronger than usual smell from chimneys and, of course, animals in the chimney.

Sais recommends inspecting and cleaning, which usually costs $100+, after 50-60 fires, burning a cord of wood, or whichever comes first.

“Everyone uses their homes differently,” he said. “Some people burn it several times a year. If you have a wood stove, you can burn it daily. The more you burn, the more you need to clean up.

Pat Sais on the roof of his house in Hicksville...

Pat Sais on the roof of her house in Hicksville. He recommends inspecting and cleaning a chimney after 50 to 60 fires, burning a cord of wood, or whichever comes first.
Credit: Dawn McCormick

Chimney caps

Flues or chimney liners should be checked for cracks and deterioration of tiles where water can enter. In most cases where flue repair is needed, it’s just the top section, which costs $500 to replace, including the crown, Sais said.

Rain caps, ideally stainless steel and bolted to chimneys to keep animals and water out, and sparks from escaping, cost $100 or more to replace, including installation.


Bill Martakis, 62, a service manager at a Chevrolet dealership, who lives in Glen Head, said he had his woodstove, chimney and flue cleaned every three months in the winter because he uses daily. “It’s the only means of heating in my cigar room,” he said. “I like it grilled when I take my cigar.”

It is important to clean the soot to avoid a chimney fire. Sais said good stove cleanings involve taking stoves apart to clean parts, as many are used more often than fireplaces.

Enza Brandi, a lawyer in her 50s, said she often used the wood-burning stove in her Northport home because the open floor plan allowed the heat to circulate. “It heats the whole house,” Brandi said. “It’s fantastic.”

A wood-burning stove is much more efficient than a traditional fireplace, which can emit up to eight times more carbon dioxide for global warming per unit, according to the Sierra Club.

Enza Brandi's wood stove can heat her entire Northport home.

Enza Brandi’s wood stove can heat her entire Northport home.
Credit: Rick Kopstein


A fire using wood that is not properly seasoned can result in backdraft, which sends smoke rolling up the chimney into your living space.

Sais recommends preheating chimneys by lighting some paper and sticking it in the smoke chamber. “The flame will create a draft,” he said. “If you don’t preheat, your smoke will flow back.”

Caps help keep wind from blowing up chimneys. “The taller the chimney, the better the draft,” Sais said, noting that chimneys are typically 20 feet tall and up. “If it is short, sometimes there is wind blowing on it.”


Embers can be dangerous if they leave the hearth. Noncombustible materials such as tile, stone or brick should be used to surround a fireplace.

“Once the fire goes out, you break it out with fireplace tools and close the screen and the doors,” Sais said. “It will deprive him of oxygen.”

While most fireplaces have screens or something to block embers, airtight panels are best, Sais said, adding, “I wouldn’t let it burn with just a screen.”

Brandi’s wood burning stove insert has a heavy glass and iron door. “Once I light the fire, I close the door and it continues to burn on its own,” she said.

Ember management is important. Kim doesn’t throw water on an indoor fire because “it will smoke a lot more.” Vetter brushes the ashes through a trapdoor into a metal rack, and Martakis keeps the embers in a metal box for a few days until they cool completely, before throwing them away.

Enza Brandi wears heat resistant gloves to load wood into the fireplace.

Enza Brandi wears heat resistant gloves to load wood into the fireplace.
Credit: Rick Kopstein


Residences usually have a firewood poker, but other tools can be useful. Brandi uses potholders to load wood into the fireplace, while Kim uses long-sleeved welding gloves that cost around $25. Brandi has a fireproof rug in front of her fireplace near a screen to keep embers from escaping. Fire-resistant fireplace rugs typically cost $30 and up, with large ornate rugs reaching $200.

Kim uses a black ash bucket with a lid to sweep up the ashes, but cautions against galvanized metal trash cans, which can release gases into the atmosphere that “you don’t want to breathe.” He favors materials like carbon steel similar to those used for frying pans that don’t give off odors or chemicals.

Kim keeps two fire extinguishers (about $20 each) 5 and 10 feet from the fireplace, and an infrared thermometer, also about $20, to check on hot surfaces to make sure they aren’t too hot to touch . “I aim it at anything that feels hot in the fireplace and around it,” he said of the thermometer he sometimes uses.

Charles Bongiorno Jr. in his East Northport firewood yard.

Charles Bongiorno Jr. in his East Northport firewood yard.
Credit: Via Charles Bongiorno Jr.

The Woodcraft

Good fires start with good wood, available at stores, gas stations and elsewhere, but Stephanie Vetter likes to have all the wood she needs delivered at once. She has a cord of wood (4 feet high by 4 feet wide and 8 feet long stacked) delivered to her home.

“I make sure it’s seasoned hardwood,” she says. “Soft wood creates creosote in your chimney, which is not a good thing.” She buys her wood from Bongiorno’s Long Island Firewood in East Northport, which stocks oak, cherry and maple.

Getting the right amount of wood is a good start, said owner Charles F. Bongiorno Jr. “It’s like, ‘How long will a tank of gas last on your car?’ ” he said. “Some people can buy a lanyard for the whole year. Some make a half rope last all year round.

Wood collected from the backyard can be handy, but it usually doesn’t burn well and can harbor fungus, which adds moisture that can make it harder to start a fire and create noisy fires. ‘burst.

Although many residents can enjoy the warmth of the wood, Kim said it’s often caused by the humidity. “Popping might sound cool, but it can be dangerous,” he said. “When it erupts, you can have embers flying everywhere.”

Bongiorno said whistling fires can also be dangerous and can damage the chimney. “It’s bad for the chimney because of the creosote,” he says. “A spark comes in and lights the fireplace.”


People sometimes throw wood in heaps on their property to age and dry it. “It doesn’t age properly because it’s not insulated,” said Bongiorno, who recommends sun-dried wood in ventilated bags covered with tarps.

Sais suggests storing wood on bare ground to prevent insects and rodents from taking up residence, under a blanket to ensure it stays dry.

Many people store wood on shelves behind their house or in the garage. Martakis stores his on a firewood rack in his driveway, while Vetter keeps his at the top of his driveway, throwing a tarp over the top for protection from rain and snow.

—Claude Solnik

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