My friend Mike Bowers builds barns for a living, so he’s outdoors a lot. That means coming home from work chilled to the bone in wintertime, shucking off his Carharts, and bee-lining it to the wood stove. He has heated his house in the southwest Virginia countryside with wood for a bunch of years, and is a maestro of the stove, working its intake dampers like a pump organist until its cast iron walls nearly ripple with heat.
“I like a draft that’ll just about snatch your pants off,” he says.
Two nights ago I was complimenting myself for achieving that level of burn in my own stove here in Kentucky. I could see through the glass front door that the red oak logs inside burned with the intensity of the sun, and the two damper ports on the front of it were sucking in so much oxygen they almost whistled. I warned the cat not sit any closer than she was, or risk being vacuumed up and dry-roasted.
Then--just about the time I admitted to myself the whistling dampers were a sign I needed to maybe tamp things down a bit to keep the stovepipe from overheating--I heard another sound, this time from behind the stove. It was a muted roar, inside the wall.
Talk about having your pants snatched off. I nearly leapt out of mine as I realized what that roar meant: chimney fire!
My nine-year old daughter had stepped into the room about the time this recognition was settling in, and she said something to me, but I shushed her quick and reached down to close the dampers, hoping to cut off the oxygen that helped fuel the intensifying roar. I closed the larger damper at the top, too, and the flames inside the choked-off stove died. But I could still hear a rumbling from the chimney (we live in an old farmhouse. The wood stove is vented into the stone fireplace and up the stone chimney, but the fireplace is not exposed. Someone before me sealed the opening and then covered the face with drywall, so I had few visible clues).
I told Anna, who was in her pajamas, to put on her coat and shoes and follow me as I ran out the side door to confirm what I already knew. Sure enough, the chimney was belching flames and hot gases like a roman candle. My knees went squishy, complement to the sick knot in my stomach.
But I didn’t panic, because I had an ace in the hole: I knew it wasn’t the stone chimney ablaze with a winter’s worth of creosote --that highly flammable and sticky liquid component of woodsmoke.
It was the six-inch stainless steel vent pipe I had installed along with the wood stove. I had heard lots of stories, most from Mike, about the dangers of wood stoves, and I had followed his directive back when I decided to use one. “Get a heavy-gauge stainless steel liner to run up that old chimney,” he said. “Then you won’t have to worry about the creosote coating those stones, catching fire, and burning through the mortar that holds them together, into your attic. That’s what can happen, even if you’re responsible about cleaning the chimney.”
I think Mike knew I wouldn’t be all that regular about chimney sweeping, so he insisted, even set me up with an Amish metal shop in Illinois that built the steel liner to my specifications and shipped it to me in four-foot sections. I riveted them together, wrestled the pipe down my chimney shaft, and then vented the stove through it from below. At that moment, gawking at the hellfire raging from it, I felt I had never done a smarter thing in my entire life.
Still, this was a fire very much beyond my control, and in the heart of my tinder-dry old house. The flames and gases were boiling up and away into the cold night air; there were lots of sparks, too, and some were settling unsettlingly on the roof’s combustible asphalt shingles.
I stepped back inside and called 911. Anna raced from her bedroom to stand beside me, and I saw she had actually taken the time to change out of her pajamas, into jeans and a shirt, before putting on her coat and hat. And I was caught between wanting to tell her what a dangerous waste of time that was with the house on fire and wanting to assure her the house wasn’t on fire -- even though I was calling 911.
As it was, I didn’t have time to tell her anything because the operator answered instantly and asked for my address. I gave it to her and told her I had a chimney fire. She wanted assurance that everyone in the house was accounted for, then told me to get everyone outside. She said the fire trucks would be there as soon as possible, and reminded me to get outside before she cut the connection.
So we did. I took Anna out to the driveway, and to ease her escalating alarm and anguish at the thought of her house burning down, I told her to look up at the chimney with me, and explained why she didn’t need to worry all that much. We’d caught and responded to the problem early, and the stainless steel pipe appeared to be doing exactly what it was meant to do. The chimney itself was not burning, the roof had not caught fire, and, in fact, the flames from inside the steel pipe were already weakening, shrinking and turning a brighter yellow, suggesting they were running out of fuel. I also told her it was a good sign that we hadn’t smelled even a whisper of smoke inside the house, and that the smoke alarms--both with fresh batteries--were silent.
It occurred to me then that I might want to call 911 back.
I didn’t intend to call them off, but I thought it might temper an all-out response if I told them about the chimney liner and the waning ferocity of the fire inside it. And the operator seemed to appreciate it, though she insisted someone would come out, just in case. I took that to mean perhaps a single volunteer fireman with a ladder, flashlight, and fire extinguisher. And even that might be too much. With my daughter safe and the house not engulfed in flames, I had regained the presence of mind to wonder why I didn’t just get up on the roof myself with the garden hose, to squelch any flame that might arise from a spark. That’s what Mike would have done, I figured. He wouldn’t have declared an emergency before determining things were really beyond his control.
Then again, it was impossible for me to be both inside to gauge the roar, and outside to monitor the flames. And the most obvious measure I could think of--closing the stove’s dampers--hadn’t choked off the fire’s air supply.
I considered climbing up to the blazing pipe and dumping cold ashes, dirt, or water directly into it, but I’m a victim of having seen that Ron Howard-directed movie some years ago about firefighters, in which flames are the cunning, supernatural enemy. I worried they’d reach over and torch me to cinders before my daughter’s eyes.
So we waited. And very soon I spotted one flashing light come over the rise up the road. “Good,” I thought. “And they didn’t even turn on the siren.” No reason to get the neighbors spooked, or to let them know I’d been dumb enough to catch my house on fire. But then came another flashing light, and then another. There were five in all, very big, and bristling with equipment and firemen in all their gear.
By then the flame from the pipe was about as intense as a candle on a birthday cake. My cheeks were blazing pretty hot, though.
The captain of the crew jumped down from the lead truck and approached me, then interrupted my sputtering about how all this might be a little bit of an over-reaction, to ask Anna if she was okay, and then ask me the same. Then he let me direct his gaze to the chimney as I told him about the wonderful stainless steel liner, and how the flames had seemed really bad just minutes before but had now dwindled, as he could surely see, to not much of a threat to anyone.
But all the while, his crew members streamed past us with ladders, hooked metal sticks (for snatching panicked pets out of harm’s way by their collars) and squawking radios. They were in and on top of the house in moments. Anna, who had calmed, began crying again because it started to look as though the house would be destroyed not by fire but by the fire crew determined to squelch it.
Finally, when everyone appeared to be at their stations, the crew looked to the chief for direction, and he relayed a clipped version of what I’d told him. “He says there’s a pipe in the chimney. Probably that’s the only thing on fire.”
I couldn’t make out expressions very well beneath those helmets, but I think I detected disappointment along with some disbelief. And the chief didn’t call them off, even though there were now no flames coming from the liner at all. The guys on the roof just stood up there.
It occurred to me then to wonder what the crew inside was doing, so I excused myself and ducked in, with daughter in tow. Six firefighters were clustered around the wood stove, staring at it. Another was ranging around, pointing what he explained was a thermal imaging camera at the wall behind, to detect hot spots. And the creaking overhead told me at least one man had found his way into the attic.
I stopped them just as the group at the stove decided they’d open it and remove all the logs.
“You’ll smoke up the whole house, and there’s no need!”
Only then did they seem to recognize the smoke alarms and how they weren’t screaming. Yes, I had to assure them the batteries weren’t dead.
I also had to repeat the story I had told the captain outside, about the liner, and its thickness, and how I had installed it myself so I knew how it was put together and how strong it was, and how there was very little chance they were going to find any lurking hot spots behind the walls or in the attic because the fire had been completely contained inside the liner, best I could tell, and how I’d really only been concerned about the roof, which in retrospect I might have been able to protect with my very own garden hose.
They, too, seemed disappointed. And the one with the camera persisted with his passes along the walls until the captain stepped in to call them off.
That was when he finally acknowledged the five-truck response was a little over the top. He said they had all been finishing up a house fire ten miles farther into the county when my call came in, and since my place was on the way back to town they figured they’d hit me with overwhelming force.
I appreciated it, I lied.
Later, as I tried getting my freaked-out daughter to sleep, she asked if the fire had been my fault. I told her it was indeed, because I had failed to follow my own wood stove maintenance schedule for the winter.
Each year, halfway through the burning season, I’m supposed to take the pipe off the stove and check for creosote. I usually have some deposits in the short horizontal run of pipe that connects to the liner inside the chimney, and can usually remove them easily with a wire brush. I can also usually count on a run of two or three warmish days in early January that make such measures easier. It’s been known to get briefly up into the 60s and 70s in January here in central Kentucky before winter comes screaming back.
But we didn’t get the January thaw this year. In fact, the first half of the month offered some pretty bitter cold, and I'd had the wood stove cranking the whole time. I could have adhered to my schedule; the house is equipped with a perfectly fine furnace that would have kept us warm while I took the stove out of service. But I decided it wasn’t necessary. I figured the really hot fires I was producing to ward off the cold would insure against heavy build-up of creosote, since it’s supposed to be a problem more associated with weak, smoky fires. Failing that, I was banking on Mike’s stainless steel liner saving me.
That reasoning did fail, and Mike’s liner did save me.
I’m not sure what’s going to protect me after he hears this story, though, and comes after me for being so lazy and inattentive. Let it be a lesson all you wood burners: line your chimneys, and clean them regularly even when they are lined.