Brrr! Crisp Fall Weather Means Cozy Fires

Fire Marshal and Assistant Chief of the Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue Matt Smolsky has some cold-weather fire safety tips.

Part 1 in a two-part series

As the colder months approach, we are all looking forward to the fun things fall brings… apples, falling leaves, fall clothes, and, of course, pumpkin spice lattes! One of the best things about the fall are toasty fires to curl up next to and lots of candles to decorate your space with a homey feel.

Nearly half of home heating fires occur in the colder months, mostly due to heating implements: fireplaces, furnaces, hot water heaters, boilers, kerosene heaters, and portable space heaters. Matt Smolsky, County Fire Marshal and Assistant Chief of the Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue, has offered some important tips to keep your home — and your family — safe.

“The main thing to remember about all heating and heat-producing implements — no matter how small — is to keep all combustible materials at least three feet away from them.” Smolsky says. Combustible is defined as anything that can be lit by a match.

Fireplaces and woodstoves

Fireplaces and woodstoves should be inspected every year in the fall to be sure they are ready for use. Creosote can build up on the inside of your chimneys, pipes, and flues, which can be very dangerous and may catch fire. Anything that is between the fire and the location that the smoke — and possibly sparks —  leave the house should be inspected and cleaned by a professional every year.

Burn only seasoned firewood or approved fireplace logs, not simply anything that is combustible. Smolsky cautions: “Do not use gasoline or charcoal lighter fluid to help start your fire; the stream can become misdirected onto other combustibles.”

Be sure your chimney has a fireplace cap — something over the top of the chimney that will prevent sparks from escaping, and also to prevent birds, whose nests will be highly combustible by winter, from entering the chimney.

Additionally, use a fireplace screen to avoid sparks flying out and to keep children and pets at a safe distance.

Other heat-producing products

Hot water heaters produce heat, especially those with a pilot light, and can therefore cause a fire if flammable items are left too close — a particular problem for those of us who store things in the basement. Furnaces and other gas-fueled appliances can become overtaxed in the winter, and should be inspected by a professional.


We all love the ambiance of candles, especially in the fall and winter. But Smolsky is adamant about the danger of candles, and reminds us that all flames, no matter how small, can become a problem: “Although a candle flame is small, it is still an open flame fire. It doesn’t take very long for a little flame to become a big fire when it lights nearby combustibles” He highly recommends the use of battery-operated candles, but if you are a diehard flame candle lover, he cautions you to make sure, again, that flammable items are at least three feet away. Candles should be in a glass dome candle holder with a secure base so they will be less likely to be tipped over. Power outages are common in snowy weather, but Smolsky recommends not using candles as a light source. Use flashlights instead.

Smolsky would like us to remember certain things as we head into the colder months: anything that can be lit by a match is combustible and therefore a danger; all things that produce any kind of heat at all should have a clearance of at least three feet on all sides; be very careful of children and pets who may knock combustible items or heat producing implements over; and never leave anything with a flame (candles, fireplaces, wood stoves) unattended and be sure that they are completely out when going to bed. One additional thing he strongly encourages everyone to do: “please ensure your home has an adequate number of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Test them frequently to ensure operational readiness.  It may save your life.”

Part 2 coming in a future issue: Fire safety during the holiday season.


Pam Kamphuis
About Pam Kamphuis 103 Articles
Pam Kamphuis is an editor and writer for Piedmont Virginian Magazine and Piedmont Lifestyle Magazines.

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