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Most people enjoy the sight and sound of a fire crackling in a fireplace or a wood-burning stove during the winter, but fire department officials and the Utah Farm Bureau Federation warn Utahns there are precautions that should be observed to avoid fires and deadly, invisible gases that can kill.

Home heating equipment, including fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, cause more residential fires than any other source, according to the Insurance Information Institute of New York City.And, while the percentage of these fires has dropped during the 1980s, heating fires still account for more than 20 percent of the 550,000 residential fires that occur each year. An estimated 70 percent of all wood stove fires are the result of improper use, maintenance or installation of equipment.

Jerry Ferguson, vice president of farm safety for the Utah Farm Bureau, says wood-burning stoves and fireplaces have become more and more popular as a way to hold down home heating costs.

"But while the number of stoves and fireplaces being used has increased, the number of home fires resulting from improper burning and stove maintenance has risen dramatically, too," he says.

Ferguson says a few precautions can protect Utahns from a stove or fireplace fire. Here are some of his suggestions:

-Make sure there is at least three feet of clearance between a stove or fireplace and any combustible materials.

-Never double flue or use the same chimney to service several stoves or fireplaces.

-Make sure you have plenty of smoke or heat detectors throughout your home and inspect them regularly to make sure they work.

-Inspect your chimneys and have them cleaned if necessary to ensure there is no buildup of creosote. Burning only dry, well-seasoned wood, preferably hardwoods, will help keep creosote buildup to a minimum.

-Don't burn colored paper, pressure or chemically treated wood, plastics or trash in your stove as there is a serious risk of exposure to harmful gases that are given off when these materials burn.

-When disposing of ashes, keep them in a metal container with a tight-fitting lid. Many fires are caused when ashes that appear to be cold are placed in a paper or plastic garbage bag for disposal and, while sitting in a garage, for instance, ignite the container and start a fire.

Ferguson said there are many businesses that clean and maintain wood-burning stoves, fireplaces and chimneys and flues. "If you are not sure you're qualified to take care of these things, it would be wise to employ someone who is."

Proper maintenance of a wood-burning stove or fireplace may cost a little money, Ferguson said, "but that amount pales in significance when compared to the enormous costs of rebuilding your house or the medical bills for a family member burned in a home fire."

A free booklet entitled "Wood Stove Safety," is available by calling the Insurance Information Institute, at 1-800-221-4954.