The Cambrian

Where there’s smoke, there may be a blocked chimney

The columnist’s husband, John, builds a fire in their wood-burning stove, their home’s source of heat in winter.
The columnist’s husband, John, builds a fire in their wood-burning stove, their home’s source of heat in winter. Special to The Cambrian

In the Santa Lucia Mountains in Cambria’s backcountry, fire is our friend and our foe. Fire in the grasslands or forest is cause for great alarm. Fire in our woodstove is a comfort on chilly days.

Because we live totally off the grid and because propane is so expensive, we never use our central heating. We have always considered our wood stove to be our only source of heat — for sure, a labor-intensive way of keeping warm on frosty or cool, rainy days.

When we wake up in the morning to find the inside of the house around 50 degrees, and we’re California freezin’, we can’t just move the thermostat dial to toasty up the house.

Depending on how prepared we are when a cold day hits, my husband John may have to gather wood from our woodpile, start a fire with newspaper and kindling, add logs and wait for the air to get warm enough for us to take off our hats and coats. I can always tell that it’s time to build a fire when I see John sitting on the couch reading in his knit cap and fleece jacket.

Cold enough for you?

When our remarkably efficient wood stove is working properly, it can take our living room from too cold to way too hot in less than an hour with almost no smoke or odor. However, as with everything else that comes to mind, wood stoves need periodic maintenance to work optimally.

On a very cool day recently, John did his normal fire-building thing and the house immediately filled up with smoke like the worst L.A. smog you can imagine, making it smell like an old ski condo. Hmm! We deduced that something was amiss — perhaps because we hadn’t had our wood stove serviced since it was installed more than 11 years ago?

John is not a fan of high places — even the next-to-the-top step of a ladder — and has never climbed up onto the roof of our single-story house without a seriously good reason. Checking out our chimney hasn’t been one of them, I guess. When our friend Doc suggested that an examination of the chimney was in order, considering the smoky, choky fog the wood stove was producing inside our house, they climbed up on the roof together for a look-see. Lo and behold, the top of the chimney was totally blocked by ash from all the years of fires. I guess we’re lucky we didn’t burn the house down.

Living in the middle of an old-growth forest has always provided us with plenty of firewood from the trees that naturally fall each year. We’ve always felt compelled to take advantage of this free fuel. But — and it’s a big but — in the future, we will have to be more diligent about doing regular chimney and wood stove maintenance so we don’t destroy our house and end up living on the forest floor with no walls or roof to keep us cozy and dry when the cool, wet days grace our beautiful mountain.

Marcia Rhoades’ column is special to The Cambrian.