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HOME IMPROVEMENT : Chimney Sweeps Handle Dark Side of Cheerful Fireplace Blazes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The hazard of never cleaning the flue is that creosote builds up, posing the threat of a fire that could damage the house.

Like a primal force, the call of the well-sooted chimney beckons to Frank Stewart’s smoky soul.

“It’s the challenge of conquering a tough chimney that appeals to me,” said the 33-year-old Silverado Canyon resident, partly explaining his decision a decade ago to follow the ash-strewn path of a professional chimney sweep. “The work is physical, hard. You’re always contorting yourself into fireboxes and climbing up ridiculously steep roofs. I’ve taken jobs that other sweeps wouldn’t touch.”

Such as the chimney in Orange that looked like it had been grafted onto the side of a Swiss alp.

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This particular stack was attached to a 90-year-old home with a high peak roof. Four different chimney sweeps had previously turned the job down, claiming there was no way to anchor a ladder from the steep roof to the chimney unless it was tied to a mountain goat. Stewart took a long look at the brick chimney towering three stories above him and felt his sweep’s blood rise.

“The top of the chimney was offset from the ridge of the roof,” he recalled. “It was too high to reach from the ground with my ladder. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.”

Stewart and an assistant solved the slippery dilemma by thrusting a ladder straight out from the roof ridge to the chimney top, creating a make-shift bridge 35 feet in the air from which to work.

“We walked across the rungs of the ladder to the chimney,” he said, admitting it was “all pretty scary. It was like we were a circus act, or something.”

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Stewart is head flue flusher for Red Hot Chimney Sweeps, a company he founded 10 years and more than 6,000 chimneys ago. Once a solo operation, he now employs two other sweeps to help him brush the sooty throats of an additional 1,500 chimneys a year at $77 a stack.

Although there are an estimated half million chimneys in Orange County, only a fraction of them are cleaned on a regular basis, according to Stewart. Many more can go decades before seeing the business end of a chimney sweep’s brush.

“People just don’t think about their chimneys unless there’s an obvious problem like smoke pouring out of the fireplace,” he said.

The problems can be worse, especially if you happen to be one of those homeowners who clean your chimney about as often as you put a child through college. Then you may be risking a potentially disastrous flue fire due to the buildup inside your chimney of tar and smoke residue into a combustible veneer called creosote. One hot fire and the entire chimney can erupt like a brick-lined Vesuvius.

“Usually around Christmas is a bad time for chimney fires,” Stewart said. “Some people are dumb enough to burn their Christmas trees in the fireplace, and the fire burns so hot, it can set off (the creosote) in the chimney.”

Chimney fires can reach temperatures in excess of 2,000 degrees--hot enough to melt the mortar around the bricks--and can burn for up to an hour. Flaming debris is blowtorched into the air from the chimney mouth as the creosote is consumed. As the fiery fallout settles it can ignite wood shingle roofs as well as nearby trees.

“Even if there isn’t any damage to your house, there could be structural damage to the chimney,” said Stewart, who recommends a post-fire inspection to check for cracks in the masonry and flue lining.

As a preventive measure, he adds, chimneys that are used regularly should be inspected at least once a year and cleaned as needed.

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Flue fires are an example of lax chimney maintenance at its most extreme. Far more common are house fires that start because a chimney lacks a spark arrester or because there are cracks in the masonry through which heat can escape and ignite combustible materials in the house itself.

Stewart also warns that the gradual effects of age and exposure can weaken chimneys, a high-risk problem in earthquake country such as California.

Following the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, Stewart spent several weeks in the Bay Area making bids for the repair of damaged or collapsed chimneys. He says that by some estimates as many as 50,000 chimneys were leveled by the temblor.

“In Santa Cruz, near the main epicenter, there were chimneys lying on the ground everywhere,” he recalled. “It looked like every chimney in town fell down.”

Stewart says the collapse of so many chimneys should remind Orange County homeowners to get away from their own dangerous masonry stacks when the ground starts to move. After the shaking stops, a careful inspection of the chimney--providing it is still standing--should be made either by the homeowner or a qualified chimney sweep. Inspections usually cost $30 to $40.

A collapsing chimney is usually a localized disaster, the impact area confined to the house of origin. On the other hand, massive chimneys such as those often found on custom homes can, if they fall, take out large chunks of the neighborhood.

Among the largest and tallest house chimneys in Orange County are the six-story, double-flue brick behemoths towering over the Costa Mesa home of Gene Urschel. The two ornate, Victorian-style chimneys pack a potential drop weight of some 60 to 70 tons worth of masonry and concrete. For this reason, both stacks have been reinforced with steel bars, which may or may not provide some comfort to those living near ground zero.

Older chimneys are particularly at risk from earthquakes, according to Stewart. Michael Nath, owner of a Placentia farmhouse built in 1903, lives beneath a chimney whose cracked and twisted top looks as if it could disintegrate at any moment. Nath, a general contractor, says he has been meaning to fix the chimney ever since it was damaged by the 1987 Whittier earthquake.

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“It’s on the list,” he said, referring to that mythical tally of future home repairs and improvements dear to the hearts of procrastinators everywhere. “I’m going to re-mortar the bricks and then brace the chimney to the roof using aluminum corner angles.”

A few years ago it looked as if the traditional world of the chimney sweep would go high-tech with the introduction of the mini-cam inspection system--basically, a television camera on a pole that can be lowered down the chimney for a close-up interior view. It’s an idea whose time has yet to come--at least here in the Southern California area--according to John Valentine, owner of Chim-Chim Cheree Chimney Sweep Service in Santa Monica.

“We were one of the few area (chimney sweep) firms to offer it, but the system took two men to operate, we had to charge extra for it, and the equipment was always getting broken and beat up,” he said. “And even though we could see all the cracks and missing grout inside of a chimney, it didn’t mean much because we couldn’t get in there to fix them.”

When a chimney isn’t belching fire or dropping bricks all over the place, it sometimes doubles as unexpected shelter for wayward animals.

Stewart says that the smoke shelf above the damper acts as a critter catchall. Over the years he has rescued an assortment of creatures from chimneys, including raccoons, newborn kittens and enough birds to feather a flock. He once had to deal with a marauding raccoon that was breaking and entering through the chimneys of homes in the Big Canyon area of Newport Beach.

“The (homeowners) never saw the raccoon, but they’d hear him at night and see his sooty footprints on the carpet leading from the fireplace. That raccoon could pull off chimney screens and even knew how to open the dampers.”

The nocturnal interloper was finally turned back by installing raccoon-proof chimney caps on the affected homes.

Although Christmas has come and gone, no discussion of chimneys would be complete without a reference to the most famous of all chimney-borne visitors--that ho ho ho-ing honcho himself, Santa Claus. Stewart, in his role as chimney sweep, does his best to act as advance man for the jolly one in the weeks leading up to the big night.

“If I’m going on a job where I know there are going to be young children around, I’ll make sure to bring along a few pieces of red felt,” he said. “With the kids looking on, I pull these pieces of felt out of the chimney, as if Santa had caught his suit the year before and ripped it. Their eyes get absolutely huge, especially if they’re at the age when they don’t believe in Santa anymore.”

Sometimes the innocent ruse snares unexpected quarry.

“In Irvine, I remember a dad who didn’t have a clue about what I was doing,” he laughed. “He looked at those felt pieces as if they were the real thing. His wife finally gave him a little kick to bring him around.”


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