Our Little Big Chimney Fire
Wood burners, be wise. David Mudd almost got it perfect and his house survived, thanks to a steel “ace in the hole.”
[imgcontainer left] [img: chfirefix320.jpg]
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.
[imgcontainer left] [img: mudd-chimney320.jpg] [source]David MuddThe Mudds’ chimney post-fire, with stainless steel liner.