Cooler temperatures may have you reaching for the matches and kindling. But before you start using your fireplace, shell out for an annual inspection.

For traditional masonry chimneys — a chimney built of bricks or stone — find a technician certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

Plenty of problems can arise in a year. “The house could have settled a little, or a bird could have built a nest in the chimney,” says Charles Hall, president of Fairfax-basedWinston’s Chimney Service. Special cameras used to inspect masonry chimneys give homeowners a clear picture (literally) of any issues.

A wood-burning fireplace that’s used frequently needs its chimney swept every one to two years. That’s because creosote — a dark, flammable tar that’s a byproduct of woodsmoke — builds up in the chimney and, if left unchecked, could burst into flames while you’re enjoying a fire in your fireplace.

“A chimney fire is probably the scariest thing you’ll ever witness in your life,” says Rick Vlahos, executive director of the Arlington-based Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Education Foundation and National Fireplace Institute. “You could have sparks or flames shooting out of your chimney, and the temperature can rise to well over 2,000 degrees.”

Gas fireplaces should also be inspected annually, preferably by a technician certified by the National Fireplace Institute. This helps ensure that no insects have taken up residence in gas lines, that no repairs or replacement parts are needed, and that the gas is burning as it should.

To burn safely, the natural gas fuel needs plenty of oxygen.

“The biggest fear [with] gas fireplaces that aren’t maintained properly is carbon monoxide,” Vlahos says. “A pro

perly burning one may produce carbon dioxide, but an improperly burning gas fireplace will produce carbon monoxide, which can be deadly.”

If there is a carbon monoxide risk, a technician will find and fix that during an inspection.

Supply List

Once you know your fireplace is in good shape, make sure you have the proper equipment on hand. For a wood-burning fireplace, that includes fire-retardant gloves, good quality tools — a poker, tongs and a shovel — a fire extinguisher and smoke detector nearby, and a lidded metal container for removing ashes. Don’t store your ash container in a garage or shed near gas-powered tools or flammable liquids. After the ashes have been in the metal container with the lid on for a week or two, they are safe to dispose of. Also, invest in wood that’s been “seasoned,” or dried out. Though it might be tempting to throw a fallen tree branch onto the fire, freshly cut wood has a high moisture content and won’t burn as well.