January 30, 2003

Hope Runs Eternal ~ Part Five

Or, Where There's Smoke


The clinging smell of creosote permeated their house; it clung to every fiber of all their clothes and their hair smelled of mesquite barbeque. Fred and Ann would enter a gather of friends, and those who had not yet seen them since they entered would say with certainty "The Firsts are here." They would mingle with total strangers, and the small talk would always have them offering "Y'all heat with wood, don't ya?" Their wonderful warm world had been sabotaged by creosote, the evil Hot Fudge of the distilled essence of slow-cooked wood. It was a true nightmare of a problem.

But while they were figuring on how to make it better, it got worse. One night in December just before Christmas, an extremely low-flying jet zoomed overhead. Oddly, it didn't seem to be moving away, but rather hovering right over the house. Fred put on his jacket and went outside to investigate. Great Gerty, the danged jet was nose-down the house 'cause its jet engine was throwing fire up out of their chimney! What they had there, Vern, was a flue fire. The creosote that escaped as a liguid to adorn our fireplace inside the room remained to dry and deposit thicker and thicker inside the fireplace. Eventually, it dried out enough that, with a hot fire, it ignited, burning at a temperature of over 2000 degrees, creating a most ungodly roaring column of rushing fire shooting out the chimney.

So, if there's fire, you throw water on it. Right? So in the December darkness, our idiot homeowner clambers up a ladder with a bucket of water. Whooosh! Into the blast of the jet engine. WHOOSH! SHUDDER! HISSSS! And over the next hour, it petered out and the house did not burn down. Now since this event, he has learned that pouring cold water into a hot chimney is an excellent way to crack the lining of a fireplace, allowing the fire to leave the chimney and find some nice dry framing to ignite. Flue fires: don't try this at home.

While their flue fire had a miserable but not hurtful ending, this was not the case for their neighbor, Euell. One morning not long after the Esperanza flue fire, the Firsts were awaken by fire engines all around, red lights flashing into the bedroom windows from across the street. Euell had been burning the same half-dry wood collected by the two woodchucks on the weekends. The chimney of his three-story gingerbread farmhouse was a good twenty five feet tall, so the smoke had even more time to cool off and deposit the deadly cresote. It set the framing burning in a closet adjacent to the chimney on the second floor, and a low-temperature smoldering fire spread, creating a thick pall of smoke that poured out of every open window as they stood on the sidewalk that awful morning, watching helplessly.

Everything that the smoke didn't ruin, the volunteer firemen soaked, perhaps unnecessarily, with hundreds of gallons of water. The house basically had to be gutted of all furniture, all the wall paper stripped, all their clothes thrown out. It was a neighborhood disaster that could have ended even more tragically. And but for the fact that God cares for beasts and idiots, it could easily have happened to Euell's hapless neighbor as well.

And this was the end of Fred's blissful ignorance about the dangers of wood heat... a threat that lurked so insidiously behind its warmth and charm. Yet, in spite of the risks, he was unwilling to give up the concept of taking the sun's energy stored in wood and releasing it back to warm their present and future homes. The symmetry of this astonishing and beautiful cycle of photons and chlorphyll, lignin and flame was a true life object lesson he wanted to contemplate as he grew older, to truly understand and appreciate, sitting quietly old cold mornings in the radiant warmth of a flickering wood fire.

It is now more than twenty five years, five homes, four woodstoves and more than forty cords of wood later. We heat with wood. We don't have creosote or flue fires. I sleep soundly at night, not concerned about the safety of our stove. In the final installment (yes, finally!) I will tell you what I've learned about wood and woodstoves. Maybe knowing of our experience will encourage someone among you to enjoy as we have the pleasures of the good work of wood heat in your home.


Posted by fred1st at January 30, 2003 05:43 AM | TrackBack
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