Few pleasures are as satisfying as sitting in your home in front of a fireplace. The warmth and ambiance that it produces makes it the ultimate place to relax on a cold night. Make sure you keep your fireplace safe and ready for an evening fire with these tips.

1. Burn only hardwoods in the fireplace.

Hardwoods such as maple, birch and oak burn much hotter than softer woods such as pine. The hotter fires burn off the chemical residue, known as creosote, which can coat the inside of the chimney and create a fire hazard. The hardwoods have less sticky sap to contend with so they are easier to handle and store. While more expensive than the softer woods, hardwoods reduce your risk of a chimney fire and you may not need to clean the chimney as often.

2. Inspect your fireplace often and schedule a regular cleaning.

If you use your fireplace often in the winter months, wipe out the firebox and check the chimney for creosote after every few fires. The creosote appears as a hard soot that sticks to the inside of the chimney and upper portions of the firebox near the flue. At any sign of creosote buildup, contact a chimney cleaning service, like AAAA Dave's Chimney Service, to remove it.  A regularly scheduled cleaning will also prevent a dangerous buildup of creosote.

3. Monitor the exterior of the chimney for changes.

Bricks and mortar crumble as a chimney ages and becomes more weathered. If the mortar around a chimney begins to fail, you can see large portions shift on the bricks below it. Simple mortar problems can be repaired by tuckpointing. This involves grinding out the mortar between bricks to a specific depth and filling in the space with new mortar. Large sections of damaged bricks may require the chimney to be rebuilt from that point up.

At the top of the chimney should be a metal cap with open sides. This allows heat and smoke to leave the chimney but prevents weather and wildlife from getting in. Any signs of damage to the cap requires a call to a chimney service to replace the cap before you use the fireplace again.

4. Protect the room from sparks and embers.

An open fire in the fireplace may be pleasant to watch, but it posses a serious risk to the room. Pieces of burning wood and sparks can be ejected from the open fireplace onto wood floors, carpets, furniture, pets and people. A double-mesh or glass fireplace screen in front of the firebox contains the sparks and embers but allows you to enjoy watching the fire.

Never leave a fire unattended. Always keep a fire extinguisher in the room with a fireplace. Make sure that everyone knows where it is and how to operate it. Inspect the fire extinguisher every year to make sure it is charged fully.