The morning paper had yet another story about a destructive house fire -- fortunately no fatalities, but the total loss of another home and a family’s belongings. And like many others, the culprit appears to have been the wood stove.

So many of the home fires we experience in Vermont result from trying to keep warm. Some have to do with faulty installation of wood heating equipment; many others result from improper operation or management of ash.

Burning wood safely

Having used a wood stove as a primary heating source for over 30 years, I’m pleased to report that I have never had problem, though evidence in both the house we’re moving out of and our new (old) house shows that other occupants have dealt with fires on multiple occasions. In fact, it’s very lucky that either house is still standing, based on extensive charred wood I’ve found around the chimney.

There’s a reason that building codes call for specific set-backs from combustible materials and require insulated flue pipe where it extends through building components. With any installation of a wood stove, pellet stove, or any other wood-burning equipment, follow manufacturer recommendations carefully to ensure safe operation.

On the safe-operation front, a good starting point is to burn only well-seasoned wood. (I admit to a track record that hasn’t always been great.) With dry wood, there will be less need to operate the wood stove with the door ajar and less need to open it up to adjust the logs during operation -- both potential risks.

A big part of burning wood is about storing firewood. If, like a lot of people, you have a wood shed for storing the bulk of your wood outdoors and bring in smaller amounts for storage near the wood stove, pay attention to setback from the stove and excessive accumulation of bark and detritus near the wood stove that could catch fire from a wayward ember.

Managing ashes

Most of the wood-heat-related fires that friends have dealt with have to do not with the wood stove itself, but with ashes. We store the ashes that we remove from our wood stove in several metal trash cans, and then periodically we scatter those ashes on our garden and fields. We have enough storage that we typically only spread the ashes once a year and do that in the spring or fall.

An experience last year showed me just how risky spreading ashes can be. I must have run out of ash storage capacity so had to spread some ashes in the spring when we were still using the wood stove. I spread ashes that I had removed from the wood stove weeks earlier, so I hadn’t thought there could possibly be hot coals, but after spreading some shovelfuls I noticed some threads of smoke from the grass where some of the ashes were spread.

I was easily able to deal with the few hot embers using patches of snow that remained on the ground, but it reminded me just how long coals can stay hot when buried in ashes. I’m almost sure those ashes had been in the ash can for at least two weeks.

Other fire risks in cold weather

It isn’t only wood heat that creates a fire risk. Gas- and oil-fired furnaces and boilers can also malfunction, and that happens more commonly in the coldest weather when they are working the hardest.

Cold weather is also when homeowners are likely to use portable electric space heaters. These can overload electrical circuits or result in shorts in the power cord, particularly if the cords are very old or damaged by pets or abrasion. Every year I hear about fires caused by electric space heaters. Examine the cords to those heaters carefully and replace as needed.

In very cold weather we also sometimes hear about homeowners who use a kitchen oven for heat. Whether gas or electric, ovens should never be used for space heating; they aren’t designed for that. When gas ovens (propane or natural gas) are used for space heat, they also introduce combustion products to the house -- and all open combustion of gas introduces a lot of water vapor, which can be a problem in some situations.

Energy conservation
is always safe

Generating heat to create warmth nearly always carries some risk. But reducing the need for supplemental almost never does. Improved insulation, plugging holes in the heated envelope, tightening up leaky window, and other energy conservation strategies is the best way to ensure safety in houses in cold weather.

Not only are superinsulated houses safer from fire because they require less heat to keep warm, but they are safer in the event of a power outage or interruption in heating fuel. You’ll remain comfortable longer if you can’t operate your heating system, and you’ll be less likely to need a rarely used portable heater.

Safe is good. And conserving energy is the best way to achieve that safety.

Alex Wilson is the founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and the Resilient Design Institute (www.resilientdesign.org), both based in Brattleboro. Send comments or suggestions for future columns to alex@buildinggreen.com.