Robert Hitt Neill 11-6-12

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Clean your chimney  before lighting logs

By Robert Hitt Neill

That week had begun with a pre-dawn call from our daughter that their Lab Piper was on her last legs, and could I come get her to the vet. I got to her house quickly, but it was still too late. That week ended just as spectacularly.

I got home before Betsy, poured a glass of cranberry juice (purported to be good for what ails me), picked up the evening paper, and headed for the den recliner.  It was a mite airish, and with this rerun of malaria I’ve been a little cold-natured for more than a month anyway, so I lit the gas logs in the den fireplace.

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This is a confession, but I got old a year ago last December. I realized that I was doing my broke back no favor atall to be out cutting, splitting, stacking, then hauling daily to the den fireplace my own firewood. The next day, there was an ad in the paper by my gas company that they were having a sale on gas logs.
Was that perfect timing, or what?  I went to Scott Gas, picked out my logs, and they came to install them the very next day.  I had years ago gotten gas logs for the bedroom and living room fireplaces, so I was familiar with their advantages.

No mo’ chain saws or axes required.  Just turn a dial.

Over a lifetime of enjoying wood-burning fireplaces has also given me a deep appreciation for another advantage of gas logs – no creosote build-up, so no mo’ chimney fires! We’ve experienced probably four or five here at our house over the years, and they will scare the p-wadding out of you!

Therefore it was with total confidence (and total ignorance, turns out) that I cut on the gas logs to warm up the den that Friday evening while I settled into my recliner to read the news.  

At first, I thought the roaring sound was a tractor going by on the road out front.  Only when I realized that the den was shaking did I catch onto what was happening – even then, I didn’t really believe it until I ran through the living room onto the front porch, from which I could see dirty brown smoke and flames emanating from the den chimney around the corner.

I sprinted back into the house, cut off the fire, and slammed the fireplace damper shut, cutting off the air flow to the roaring fire in the triple-pipe insulated chimney – I have those recirculating fireplaces – another advantage of gas logs over wood: one cannot shut the damper on a wood-burning fireplace without filling the house with smoke.

I ran for the back door, grabbing an old leather jacket and cap off the porch, and quickly screwed the high-pressure nozzle onto the garden hose, then cut on the faucet and headed up the ladder which still stood against the den roof, from some roof maintenance I did last summer. From the top of the ladder, I could aim the stream of water up into the bottom of the chimney cap, from whence water could drop back down the chimney and put the fire out.

The wind was blowing about 25 knots from the west. The den is on the east side of the house.

About 50% of the spray was coming back on me, but the flames had at least gone out after the first 15 or 20 minutes, though the smoke was still pouring out. Had the blow-torch-like temperature of the chimney set fire to the wood around it? I hooked the hose nozzle onto the top of the ladder and descended to run in and check the den.  Betsy was still not home.  No visible fire inside yet.

Back outside, up the ladder, spraying me and the chimney cap – this went on until my spouse got home and tapped on the den door, thinking I was playing games. But now I had someone to scream at: check the upstairs, hold the damper closed, how’s the water level in the fireplace?  It was an exciting two hours!

Listen: this may be the only valuable piece of advice you ever get from Neill. If YOU replace a wood-burning fireplace with gas logs, do NOT fail to clean the chimney of any accumulated creosote from the past year or so before you light a gas log fire and relax with the paper in the afternoon.
I’m tired of people saying, “I never heard of that happening to anyone else!”