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I and My Chimney

December 2, 2004

Herman Melville wrote a short story called "I and My Chimney" about an old codger's love affair with his big, smoky, stone chimney. I wasn't thinking of that story when I shared my experience of a chimney fire in my recent appeal to Folk Alley listeners, but the response from chimney-wise folk fans reminds me of that old grade-school reading assignment. Melville understood, in a way that few of us do in this time of central heating, the powerful bond that exists between a cabin dweller and the health of his chimney. And the consequences that can result from benign neglect. Here are some of the notes I've received from experienced fire-tenders:

Jim applies the miracle creosote spray to avoid another disaster
Your story brings back my brush with burning my house down. Man how those chimney fires roar and howl! Scares the bejesus out of a soul! - Brooks Jones

Never, never, never pour water into a chimney fire. The sudden change in temperature will surely cause the brick to crack and even collapse. Back on the farm in Manitoba if we ever had a fire in the chimney, my mother or dad, whom ever was around, poured salt down the chimney. Fortunately, we only had one fire in my life time. Good dry wood and a hot fire is the best preventative. - Al Procyshyn, Revelstoke, BC

We live in Phoenix, so the whole "heating " thing is kind of alien to us.- Neil Urban

You are never to use water to put out a chimney fire ( it will ruin your pipe and stove ) - use baking soda or sand and smother the fire and if you think you need to put it out in the chimney just close it up on top ( put a bucket over it ( metal of course )) and do just as you did below cut off all air. - Teresa Vitale

Thanks for reminding me about chimney cleaning. - Marty Bradbury

A chimney fire is a great, if potentially dangerous, way of cleaning your flue of creosote buildup. - Dave Cook

Here in Germany we have frequent controls from the district chimney-sweeper in order to prevent such adventures - seems to be a real outback where you live - the old pioneer days. - Ingo Rasch, Wuppertal, Germany

And speaking of Melville and past English assignments, this note from retired English teacher Harlan Underhill in Ann Arbor, Michigan correcting my admonition that "The next day I cleaned out the chimney and the stove pipe as I should of BEFORE I lit my first fire of the season." Harlan reminds me that " either 'should've' or 'should have' " is the proper usage.

Thanks for the advice, and thanks for your contributions. Your support keeps the fires burning at Folk Alley. - Jim

Posted by Jim Blum at December 2, 2004 1:41 PM


I burned wood for heat for many years and heard in Alaska to toss a cup of water in the woodstove and close it up so that steam would put out the chimney fire. I never had to try this out so don't know if it works or not. I was able to observe our volunteer fire department put out several less lucky and didn't relish the thought of turning them loose on my house should the need arise! Dry wood and hot fires is always the best idea!
Tammy Puthoff Sandpoint, ID

Posted by: Tammy Puthoff at December 2, 2004 4:32 PM

to Mr. Rasch in Germany:We may be an outback over here - but the driveways in our Cabins are full of the Cars that keep your Cultural hub in Business.
enjoy our music

Posted by: Arthur Nelson at December 3, 2004 11:32 AM

From the Folk Alley chemistry desk: the product Jim is spraying into the fire is a manganese oxide compound that attacks the creosote coating of the chimney both as a direct oxidizer ( working with moisure in the flue gases) and as a catalyst to the reaction. I think. I've heard overuse may corrode the metal chimney, so don't go overboard.

Posted by: Jeff St.clair at December 3, 2004 4:11 PM

Don't feel too badly, Jim,...It has happened to a lot of us. We come out older and wiser,..though maybe with a few sindged hairs! And Harlan,..picky-picky. (smile).

Posted by: Tom Glenn at December 4, 2004 1:08 AM

Don't feel too bad, Jim. I remember a night last winter when my friend and I settled down with a jug of wine in front of a roaring fire. An argument ensued,
"I don't think you opened the flue."
"Of COURSE I opened the flue!"
"My eyes are burning."
"Lady, you didn't open the flue." said the fireman with the big red truck disgustedly.

Posted by: Pam Parkinson at December 6, 2004 7:19 PM

In an emergency when you cannot close off the air, you can quickly soak some newspaper in water and throw them in the fire. The paper will create steam which will stop the chimney fire in most BUT NOT ALL cases. Once the fire is out, clean the chimney throughly, by a professional if possible. Burn only dry wood {has cracks in the ends} and only hard woods,[come from trees that have leaves]. Burn one good hot roaring fire a day for a half hour or more to melt the deposits from slow burning. Put a open bottom "T" on the bottom of a metal chiminey so the melted creasote runs into a container. I've burned wood this way for 30 years with few problems. I keep a constant watch on the chimney and still sleep lightly at night.

Posted by: Bill Nelson at December 7, 2004 11:59 PM

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