By Carol Biliczky (Knight Ridder Newspapers)

This is the time of year to rake the leaves, install fresh batteries in the smoke detectors and to get your fireplace inspected – a task too often overlooked.

While the alternative can be house fires, even death, many people postpone this humble chore as long as the fireplace looks good.

“The normal American human nature is that people don’t look at it until it breaks,” said Harry Hunter, owner of hunter’s 3 Chimney Service in Mantua, Ohio, and president of the Ohio Chimney Service Association.  “Then it could be a major repair or cost them their lif3e.”

According to the National Fire Protection Agency in Quincy, Mass., heating equipment – fireplaces, heaters and the like – rivals smoking as the leading cause of home  fire deaths every January, February and March.

In 2001, 3,420 people nationwide died in 368,000 house fires, according to the nonprofit consumer group.

Fortunately, chimney care is one of the easier tasks that homeowners have to tackle, for this reason:  It’s a job you don’t have to do yourself.

Virtually every fire protection agency recommends you hire a professional chimney sweep to inspect your chimney yearly for cracks in the lining, leaks, blockages, dead animals and the like.

Inspections could be the end of the job unless the chimney has at least one-quarter inch of a combustible deposit called creosote.

That much creosote is a hazard that needs to be swept away in case the worst eventually happens and a fire gets out of hand.  The flames could fill the firebox and threaten to burst into the chimney and ignite the creosote.

If that happens, be sure not to use the fireplace again until it has been inspected, the fire marshal’s office warns.  The excessive heat could have cracked the chimney walls and damaged the liner.  If not repaired, that damage may prompt a future fire to spread beyond the flue and into the house.

Inspections are especially valuable for chimneys that are more than 20 years old, as age and deterioration wreak havoc.

Hunter, the Manta chimney sweep, said that better chimney servicing companies will have video-scan equipment that lets them look inside the chimney –a vast improvement over the strategically angled mirrors and lights of yore.

A homeowner can expect to pay $50 to $100 for an inspection and up to $150 for a cleaning and inspection per flue, Hunter said.

Routine maintenance now can save you thousands of dollars when you go to sell your home and find out that the fireplace has big problems that require repairs.

“Keep it inspected and keep it clean and you’ll have a chimney that’ll last you forever, or at least for a very long time,” said Dana Glassner, owner of Fireplaces and More in Green, Ohio.