As we enjoy this holiday week and invite friends and families to our home, the fireplace often serves as the iconic focal point of our get-togethers. In fact, according to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), approximately one-third of Americans use fireplaces, wood stoves and other fuel-fired appliances.

My colleagues and I in the Top 5 in Real Estate Network® know how important a fireplace can be to making a house a home. But we also know the hazards they can present when proper safety precautions aren’t taken. Following are some important tips for safely enjoying your fireplace and protecting your family and home:

1. Yearly fireplace maintenance is crucial. Gas and wood-burning fireplaces require yearly maintenance in order to work effectively. If you light fires frequently, consider having this done twice a year. Chimneys should be inspected and cleared each year by a certified specialist—a professional real estate agent can recommend a good chimney sweep in the area. Burners and controls for gas fireplaces should be vacuumed and brushed at least once a year.

2. Check smoke detectors and fire alarms often to ensure they are working properly. Also, make sure you have enough in your home. The USFA recommends installing smoke alarms on every level of your home and inside and outside of sleeping areas. Test them monthly and change the batteries at least once a year. Consider installing the new long-life smoke alarms.

3. Keep the fire manageable. Small fires produce less smoke and are easier to control. Make sure your fireplace screen or cover fits securely in order to prevent any embers from escaping.

4. Monitor carbon monoxide (CO). Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless and tasteless poison produced whenever gas, oil or wood is burned. CO is controlled by proper maintenance and ventilation of fuel-burning appliances. Carbon monoxide monitors should be used in any home that has a fireplace.

5. Enable proper ventilation. Air is vital for fireplaces to function properly and for preventing CO buildup. Never cut off the air supply to the flame. Make sure that necessary vents and dampers are open, and do not shut the flue until the fire is almost out. Leaving a window open a few inches can also help circulate fresh air and prevent back drafts.

6. Only burn the proper materials. Use only seasoned hardwood, such as oak, ash or maple. Soft, moist wood accelerates creosote buildup in your chimney, which can lead to chimney fires. Lighter fluids, flammable liquids, cardboard and trash should never be used to start a fire.

7. Ensure the right conditions outdoors. Keep your roof clear of leaves, pine needles and other debris, says the USFA. A clogged chimney, cracked masonry or a blocked vent can greatly increase the chance of fire or carbon monoxide poisoning. Periodic outdoor inspections for low-hanging branches or other debris should be performed throughout the winter.

Of course, be sure to never leave your fireplace unattended. A watchful eye is often the best safety measure there is. If you would like more information on home safety, please e-mail me. And be sure to pass these important tips onto your friends and loved ones, too. Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year!