16 January 2007


Here in the wilds of northern California, it’s bright, sunny, and cold. We’re in Day 5 of sub-freezing nighttime and very chilly daytime temps. This is not a problem for me except as it applies to my wood stove.

I’ve nicknamed him Damnthing. He’s being very stubborn through this snowless cold snap. How stubborn?

A couple of weekends back, on a clear and very chilly morning, I was chunking a few fresh logs on the coals in his maw and noticed smoke rising up through the open stove door. This happens now and then – it’s temporary as the draft inside the stove reasserts itself and starts drawing up the chimney again. But this time, rather than disappearing as I grabbed another stovelength from the ring, the smoke began pouring out the open door.

I shut it quickly and watched through the heat-proof glass as it filled the stovebox and got thicker and thicker. And then, to my surprise, the dense, gray smoke started venting from beneath the stove itself, where the mechanism for the fan lives.

This was Not Good.

The fledgling happened to be passing through on her way to the laundry room with an armload of dirty clothes. “Check the chimney, will you?” I asked. “See if there’s any smoke coming out. I ... think we’ve got a problem here.” I went to open up windows.

Sometimes, creosote builds up on the screened cap that covers the chimney top. It’s there because of a regulation here that requires them to stop sparks and flakes of hot ash from escaping, potential fire-starters. Once in a while, the cap gets gunked up and one of us has to go out, turn on the hose and direct a sharp spray of water at it to break the gunk loose and open up the air flow. It’s a cold, wet way to spend five minutes, but worth it.

She checked the chimney. Smoke was trickling out. The cap wasn’t clogged.

But it was still pouring into the living room from beneath the stove. I closed the chimney damper. My theory was that doing so would rob the fire of oxygen, put it out, and solve the immediate problem. Well, the flames died down, but the smoke continued to billow, filling the room in spite of the open windows.

Really Not Good.

“Maybe there’s a chimney fire, Mom,” the fledgling said calmly. “Maybe you should call the fire department.” She fanned at hand at the smoke without effect.

We’re an unflappable lot here at the Wren’s Nest, not the panicky type at all. We generally avoid histrionics and drama-queen imitations.

“Look again and see if there are flames coming out of the chimney,” I said, not wanting to call out the big boys unless I really did have a crisis on my hands. Hoping. You know. I hate being an hysterical female. I turned on the whole house fan in the attic, which we use to keep the house cool in the summer. It’s huge, noisy, and sucks the uncomfortably warm air out of the house in the evenings, drawing in cooler air from outside. I love the thing, in spite of the roar. With the fan, we have no need for air conditioning beyond an old swamp-cooler for the bedrooms.

The fan worked, clearing the smoke as it pulled 40-degree air from outside through the windows. I put my jacket on.

Fledgling reported that there were no flames coming out the chimney. But the smoke continued to roll out from under the stove.

“Mom, call the fire department.” There was a little more urgency in her voice now.

Conceding defeat, I did. The local fire station is only about half-mile from my house, fortunately. Three minutes later, they showed up with two engines and an ambulance, no sirens, bless their hearts. I had two firefighters inside and at least four more outside. It seemed like overkill, but I’m not complaining.

The chimney wasn't on fire, I’m glad to report. The firefighters kindly cleared Damnthing of the smoldering logs and hot coals, checked the attic to make sure there was no fire up there under the roof beams, and told me that the chimney was badly clogged with creosote. So clogged, in fact, that it had finally almost blocked the draft off. Also, it looked like our firewood was wasn’t quite as seasoned as it might be, which was causing more creosote buildup. At any rate, there’d be no point in trying to use the stove again until I got the chimney cleaned.

We’d neglected to have that done -- and this was the second year we'd forgotten. Mr. Wren used to get up on the roof with a chimney brush and sweep the chimney himself each year in the autumn. But he hasn’t been able to do that the last couple of years because he can no longer safely climb a ladder or balance on the steep, sloped rooftop, and I – I’m embarrassed to admit – am a clucking chicken about heights. I hate ladders. I just know I’ll be my usual graceful self and tumble off.

It was a Saturday morning. I had very little hope that I’d be able to find a chimney sweep who’d come out to do an emergency sweeping. Chim-chim cheree? Forget it. But I got on the phone, shivering – the kitchen thermometer now read 49 degrees – and started working my way through the phone book.

I was right. No one could come, not on the weekend. They were either already booked or simply wouldn’t. Can’t say I blame them – winters are a really busy time for chimney sweeps around here because of people like me, who neglect to get our chimneys cleaned during the summer slow season, when the weather is still hot. And chimney sweeps need a little down-time, too.

But this was surely a conundrum. The Wren’s Nest is equipped with old, outdated electric baseboard heaters, but we haven’t used them since we moved into the house in November a decade ago and received our first electricity bill, which even then stunned us to wide-eyed, gape-mouthed silence. We'd lived here all of two weeks, and the bill was well over $200. So we’d shut off the breaker to those costly, energy-wasting suckers and from that time on, used only the stove for heat in the winter. I figure we’ve saved about $1,500 a year in heating costs, using that old bill in the equation. Probably more, now, since electricity rates are so much higher.

Since the electric heaters hadn’t been used in so long, I was a little nervous about turning them on now. Didn’t want to have to call those nice firefighters back again, this time to an electrical fire, even if they were young, polite and very easy on the eyes. And I didn’t want the sudden extra cost of even a couple of days of electricity-sucking.

If we were going to be warm again before the middle of the week, I was going to have to climb the damned ladder up to the roof and sweep that blasted chimney myself. As I considered this, wondering if I could somehow strap myself to the chimney so I wouldn’t fall off as I maneuvered the long broom (assuming I didn’t fall before I got that far), while balancing my bottom-heavy, clumsy self on the roof peak, the phone rang. It was one of the sweeps who’d just told me no, he couldn’t come up here today.

He said, “You know, I was thinking about taking my daughter sledding. Are you up that way?”

“Sure am,” I said. “There’s no snow here, but go on up the highway another 10 miles and you’ll find plenty of it. Great day for sledding, too! Sunny! And it’s so pretty!”

“OK,” he said. “We’ll just stop by on the way to the snow, then.”

Chim-chim cheroo! Bert to the rescue! Two hours later, he was here. Took him all of 20 minutes to clean the chimney. And, nice fellow that he was, he charged only his usual fee, rather than a higher rate for the weekend. He said it would cover his gas and buy him and his little daughter a nice dinner out after an afternoon of playing in the snow. I thanked him profusely.

Since then, Damnthing has kept his smoke to himself. But as the temperature outside has dropped, I’ve had a heck of a time getting the fires started and keeping them going. Then, it takes forever for the fan to click on and blow that nice, warm air out into the room. If I’m away from home and the fire goes out, I return to a very cold house.

I figure that nice almond wood we bought at the end of the summer will be just about right next winter. I’ve taken to pulling wood off the stack from the back, where the leftovers from last winter’s wood are. That’s helping.

The point of all this, I guess, is really a riff on how very lucky we actually were -- and are. The stove clogged up in the daytime as I was working with it, so no one was injured or died from smoke inhalation – this little emergency could easily have hit during the night, while we slept (and to my dismay, the smoke alarms did NOT go off! We've since changed the batteries. What a doof.) There was also no chimney fire, and thus, no house fire. The chimney sweep took pity on me and came on a weekend. Even with a stubborn stove since then, we aren’t freezing to death – we have power and small space heaters, hot soup, and clothes we can layer. Damnthing works, most of the time, if I keep tabs on him. We live in a region where even the really cold weather doesn’t compare to other parts of the country, where it gets even colder, and for longer. Really, we have just about everything we need.

Finally, we aren’t dodging bullets, getting kidnapped or wondering if our neighbors are going to shoot us because we’re paganish nature lovers, rather than good Christians. We don’t live in Baghdad, where formerly peaceful neighbors are killing each other because they have different ways of worshiping the same god. And we aren’t American soldiers, biding our time until our tours are over, hoping not to be killed, blown to bits or left with some terrible, lifelong disability just because our President is as brainless and stubborn as Damnthing -- and far more dangerous.

Lucky, indeed.


robin andrea said...

That's a great story, Wren. We heat our house with propane and electric. Are planning to covert to wood some time soon, probably in time for next winter. California electricity is extremely expensive. It isn't nearly that much here in Washington. I think we pay half of what California charges for a kilowatt hour. But still it always seemed crazy to me to heat with electric. I'll remember your story when we start up with wood heat.

And yes, we are very lucky, except for that idiot we have in the White House.

MichaelBains said...

Ditto the "we are lucky". AND the exception.

'Twas a well-told story. I'm glad it had the happy ending.

Thanks. :)

Mary said...

Thanks for your cautionary tale. In addition to being uncomforatable wood smoke is dangerous. One hour of exposure lowers your ability to fight off infection 25 to 40%! It is chemically active in the body 40 times longer than tobacco. To learn more visit: http://burningissues.org

Propane systems are doable. Spending money on insulation and window upgrades will help keep you more comfortable year round.
Best of health to you.
Mary Rozenberg
Pt. Arena, CA

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

Your posst reminded me of Dick Van Dyke, of course. The man's still out there, happy as ever... Just caught him in Night at the Museum the other day. I feel sorry for Damnthing, though. Perhaps another nickname?

Blue Wren said...

"Stupid Stove" sometimes takes precedence in the nickname category, depending on my mood. But Damnthing knows I love him anyway.