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Voices of Spencer Creek

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Flue Fire

Wood heat delights us: twice it heats us and gives us light. But what do we do when it goes not right?

By Lois Barton

Posted on Nov 5, 2004

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"Flames Shooting from Chimney One Dark Morning," photo by neighbor

Winter is coming. I can feel it in my bones. The outside thermometer yesterday morning stood at 40 degrees. Heavy clouds hovered over all, misting enough to keep trees and bushes dripping. We only have wood heat in our old farm house. When we got up I felt clammy, so I started a fire in the little Norwegian stove in the kitchen. There wasn't much kindling at hand, and the fire just poked along most of the morning, turning out very modest heat.

I'd finished the morning chores and was settled in the other end of the house with my knitting when the smell of smoke caught my attention. What could be smoking like that where I could smell it in here?

Off to the kitchen I went. I saw heavy, swirling black smoke boiling down from the roof past the kitchen wiindow and I noticed a smudge above where the stove pipe entered the chimney. The fire in the small stove had really taken off. I closed the draft and added a big oak chunk to the fire box to cool things down. Then went outside to look up at the chimney. As I got it in view there was a break in the cloud cover just behind the chimney from where I stood. With the sun momentarily visible through that break it looked as if flames as well as heavy yellow smoke were pouring up that flue. What a fright!

I soon realized the sun's role in my picture. No actual flames there. Within a few minutes the billowing clouds diminished to a much smaller volume. I came inside to report the flu fire to my 88-year-old semi-handicapped husband, and called our dear friend and neighbor who lives next door.

Memory of a similar flue fire some 40 years ago which charred studs in one if the walls surrounding the chimney upstairs sent us up to check heat in those walls. Our younger, more agile neighbor helped with this operation. Those walls were merely warm, a normal condition when there was a fire below.

Watching the chimney from outside we saw that smoke continued to billow in small occasional puffs for another quarter hour. When they finally stopped the smoke color had lost its yellowish caste indicating creosote combustion was completed, and the smoke appeared more normal for a wood fire.

Our neighbor said he had no experience with flue fires, but we've had two of them with serious consequences in the 53 years we've lived in this house. The worst one was on March 17th, 1985. My 90 year old mother was living with us at the time, and her son from Ohio just happened to be visiting.

"The Flue Fire Burned a Big Hole Through to the Hall Ceiling," Barton family photo

That day was warm and sunny and we'd been outside much of the day busy with spring gardening chores. At 5:00 o:clock Brother Ed and I had just finished making a new porch box on the south deck where Mother in her wheelchair could enjoy some flowers to take care of. I gathered up the scraps of wood from that project and added them to the fire in the fireplace. I also burned one of those large composition planters someone had brought out last summer with flowers for Mother.

Those additions to the fire caused it to flare up and ignite the carbon in the chimney. Flames shot up three or four feet above the top with a roar. Ed and I watched it a minute, but when the flames subsided he went back to the garden to bring dirt in the wheellbarrow to fill the porch box while I started supper. It had been a sunny day. In fact, no rain had fallen for nearly two weeks, and the roof on that west side was dry and warm. Apparently a bit of hot carbon smouldered in a mossy pocket at the chimney base until it ignited the roof.

About an hour later my husband Hal, who'd been napping upstairs, was awakened by the smell of smoke and came down to ask about it. Daughter Fran went upstairs and discovered flames showing through the ceiling in her bedroom closet. She ran outside to look further and saw a small patch of roof blazing. She called our family next door, who came with ladder and big fire extinquisher to help. The fire department was called. We were filling buckets at the kitchen sink and bathtub to use on the fire. Our household water supply is from a spring uphill from the house, and with those faucets open there was little pressure. I ran across the yard to an irrigation pump, turning it on for better pressure through a garden hose

Several incidents are remembered with a smile since the outcome was favorable over all. Ed went up a heavy home-made ladder to the roof carrying a dishpan full of water. He was wearing sneakers which gave him poor purchase on the shingles, and through the kitchen wiindow I noticed water coming down from above, and the big old wooden ladder seemed to be bouncing away from the roof and back several times before Ed was safely on it and coming down. He wondered later just what he thought he could do with a dishpan full of water up there. At one time I went upstairs with half a bucket of water and into the closet where there was an open hole through the ceiling to the roof.

"Our Family 'Repair Crew' at Work," Barton family photo

The charred timbers around that hole were smoking, and I threw water from the bucket up at them. Frank happened to be on the roof above, also wetting that area with a hose. The water I threw splashed up his pant legs from below, puzzling him for a bit. He laid the garden hose aside for a bit and when he picked up the open end dragging across the opening, squirting water into the hole. A fireman below got a surprising face full of water. Frank apologized when he saw what had happened. The fireman smilingly queried, "Any more showers coming?"

Fire crews had arrived with a pumper truck and backup help. They said the wood looked like it had charred for about an hour around the hole in the roof. Sheetrock was removed in the upper hall to get at flames in the closed space between that and the shingles above. The area had been airtight, but when the sheetrock was taken off, small flames flared up all along the roof ridge. Hoses up on the roof, and up the stairwell inside soon had the flames under control. Firemen were surprised at the greater pressure in our rural garden hose than is usually available at country places. Before the fire crew left they tacked plastic tarps on the roof over the gap to keep the rain out the hole for the night.

That upper hallway had always been completely unlit when all the bedroom doors were closed. What a change that hole in the roof made. Our boys had come the next morning with 2x4s to replace rafters, and shingles for the roof. Seeing the improvement in hall lighting, they bought a sky light to insert in the roof. Before we were hardly out of bed the boys showed up on their own, bringing more ladders and were up fixing the damage. They are all experienced builders who knew what would be needed and came to take care of it.

Daughter Margie organized food for our "repair crew." She called me Sunday morning to say lunch was covered. Said she had three chickens, potato salsad, raspberry cobbler and some tamali pie and a turkey pie from the freezer, ready to feed the men. So I made fresh bread, a blackberry pie and some swiss steak to round out the food. There was also the inevitable fruit juice drink and a big green salad, plus coffee for those who needed it. We made two meals for 12 to 15 people out of the food and still had left overs.

What a delight that extra light has been.The children even noted how much easier it has been to make midnight runs to the downstairs bathroom since the skylight was installed. Margie facetiously asked her husband if they should burn a hole in their roof to get a sky light for their upper story.

"A Hole in One! The New Skylight," Barton family photo

We felt so blessed with talented and skilled family who came to our rescue so promptly. Steve, with electrical tools and testing equipment, had thought of a possible wiring problem and brought tools for repair. He sorted out the wiring upstairs and also put in an extra circuit which has been of real value since.

A word to the wise: Careful householders who heat old houses with wood fires need to take care that their chimneys are properly and regularly cleaned to prevent just such dire experiences as we went through yesterday as well as those even more disastrous events in our past. Since we'd had no fires all summer, current care of the chimney had been overlooked by the octogenarians who live in this old house.

Copyright ©2004 by Lois Barton

Revised Nov.6, 2004 with correction and photos

Now Available on Compact Disk: Stories from The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte

Three and a half years of years Lois Barton's stories–so you can read them without going online!

Lois Barton's Selected Works
Volume I, Chanticleer's Tales
Send $10, plus postage of $1.50 to
84889 Harry Taylor Rd.
Eugene, OR 97405

Writer and historian
Lois Barton

Lois Barton is an 85 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil.

Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

Follow the links of the Voices of Spencer Creek for the most recent articles by Lois Barton, including The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Endurance Riding,
The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Butterflies and Community Development,
and The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Last Gift.

See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By online magazine's archives:
Visit the Heron Rookery
Sauerkraut and All That
Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?
The Midwife- The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.
The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.
Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By

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