- Before starting a fire, open the fireplace damper so smoke can properly exit through the chimney.
- Use kiln-dried firewood for the cleanest burn and least chimney build-up.
- Kindling lights quickly, but knowing how to properly arrange larger logs ensures a long-lasting flame.
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While a fireplace fire can create a cozy, warm environment for food, drinks, and friends, fire is still dangerous and can have dire consequences when mishandled. Properly preparing for a fire not only brings the best out of a fireplace, but also keeps everyone safe as they enjoy the flames.
In addition to following safety precautions, “[using] high-quality wood is definitely the biggest trick” to starting a clean-burning fire with minimal difficulty, says Leroy Hite, founder and CEO of Cutting Edge Firewood. “It’s just like cooking without high-quality ingredients. Your food’s not going to taste as good.”
And if you’re not as familiar with flames, remember that starting a fire comes down to “some very simple, scientific things. More oxygen and more fuel means a bigger, faster-burning fire. Less oxygen and less fuel means a smaller fire,” says Hite.
Before you get started
Preparing a fireplace for a fire takes some time and planning, but it’s essential for safety and enjoyment. “A fire in the right place, in the right setting … is like a beautiful sunset that hits all your senses,” Hite says, but when things go wrong, “there’s no end to how terrible it could be.”
Follow these protocols to keep you and your home safe:
Make sure the chimney is in working order. A professional chimney cleaning checks for animal nests and any chimney deterioration. According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, you should get a chimney sweeping at least once a year. If you use wood that doesn’t burn cleanly or have fires every day, “you should get it cleaned more than once a year,” Hite says. Hite recommends getting your chimney swept in the spring or summer, since it can take months to book a chimney sweeping service by the time it’s already cold.
Prep the fireplace. If there’s ash in your fireplace from a previous fire, put on fire-proof gloves, and use a metal shovel to transfer them to an ash can, or a fire-proof metal bucket. “Ash in and of itself isn’t bad,” says Hite, and leaving a thin layer in the fireplace “protects the bottom of the fireplace from the heat and will make it last longer.”
Since hot coals can last for days after a fire has died, do not leave an ash can inside or anywhere flammable. Wait about a week before disposing, whether by throwing them out or reusing them as compost or garden-pest deterrent.
Prepare the damper and flue. The flue is the passage that allows smoke and gas to exit the chimney. The flue is controlled by the damper, which is the mechanism that adjusts the airflow. Make sure to completely open the damper: a blocked damper causes smoke to billow into the home, and in some fireplaces, Hite says, it can be difficult to open once the fire is started.
You may also need to prime the flue. Sometimes, smoke flows inside even when the damper is open. This happens when cold air inside the flue flows down, forcing smoke out instead of letting it up. To prevent this, prime the flue first by rolling up several sheets of newspaper into a torch-like shape, lighting one end, and holding the lighted end in the flue area. The flue is properly primed when smoke from the torch flows up the flue instead of into the room. Repeat with more torches as necessary.
Know where your fire extinguisher and gloves are. “You should always have a fire extinguisher close at hand that everybody knows exactly where it is,” says Hite.
Heat-resistant fireplace gloves allow you to adjust hot and even on-fire logs safely when rearranging a fallen or shifted log to a safer, more stable position.
Choosing the best firewood
Once a fireplace is prepped, there are three components to building a fire:
- Fire starter refers to both an ignitor — a match, or a lighter — and tinder, fuel that lights extremely easily. “The tinder is kind of like kindling for kindling,” says Hite.
- Kindling is bigger than tinder, and “generally the same length of the logs, but half an inch in diameter,” says Hite.
- Logs vary in size and quality. Keep in mind the dimensions of your fireplace when selecting firewood — it should sit comfortably on the grate inside the fireplace — and get a variety of diameters.
When it comes to firewood quality, avoid wood that hasn’t been sufficiently dried. Any wood with moisture will generate excess smoke and lead to dangerous creosote build-up in flues, which can lead to chimney fires.
Look specifically for firewood that “has been kiln-dried for at least 48 hours at a high temperature” and has never been seasoned. Firewood that’s been kiln-dried right after it’s been cut has the cleanest and most consistent burn. “It never sees outside, so it’s always bug- [fungus-, and mildew-] free,” says Hite.
Look also for hardwoods, which burn for significantly longer and put off more heat over time than softwoods. As for hardwood types, it’s a matter of preference. “The best three are oak, hickory, and cherry,” Hite says. “Oak is the standard, a staple. Hickory burns a little longer, … has a slightly more bold aroma, and is our most popular species. Cherry has a subtle sweet aroma that many of our customers absolutely love.”
When the right safety protocols are followed, a fire in the fireplace is a cozy way to get warm while inside. Before you start a fire, make sure a professional has swept your chimney recently, and double-check that the damper in the flue is open.
While there are advantages to both the log cabin and upside down methods of starting a fire, Hite says, “for most people, both advanced and beginners, the log cabin method is going to be better … it has been around for forever.” If you want to burn through a limited amount of wood, “then the upside-down method is a good thing to try out.”
Safety and technique aside, Hite adds, “just make sure to bring others around the fire … because it makes memories unlike anything else. There’s nothing that opens people up, there’s nothing that makes people think deeper than a fire. It’s primal, universal, and unifying. It can bring anybody together.”