Light my fire (but not the whole house)

Schuyler Lemler (top) and Josh Chang of CC Sweeps in Canyon City peer inside a woodstove as part of routine maintenance. The pair recommend an annual inspection and have many more tips toward keeping homes safe from fire danger during winter.

 GRANT COUNTY – At this time of year, while old Jack Frost is nipping around outside, there’s nothing like the warmth and comfort of a crackling fire in a woodstove or fireplace inside.

 But the experts caution: Just make sure that fire stays put and that all the parts of your heat source are in good working order. A few precautionary steps will keep you and your family, not to mention your home intact for many years to come.

 Schuyler Lemler and Josh Chang of CC Sweeps LLC in Canyon City have some words of advice.

 For starters, Lemler and Chang said that “anything with a chimney needs to be inspected at least once a year,” woodstoves, fireplaces, even oil heaters, if they have a chimney.

 That’s the recommendation of both the Oregon Chimney Sweeps Association and the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

 Lemler and Chang agreed that, depending on individual burning habits and the number of flue fires (if any) the home has undergone, inspections might need to be done more often.

 One of the most obvious benefits of regular inspections and maintenance is protection from the risk of fire, with creosote as one of the more likely threats.

 “It (creosote) is a byproduct of burning fuel, usually wood and oil, but not pellet,” Chang said.

 Commonly known as “soot,” creosote is black, whereas ash is white.

 Creosote builds in three stages. At first, it’s flaky and easy to remove. If left untended, the flakes begin to melt and become tarry, the second stage. Even then it’s still removable. Finally, it becomes rock-like and, depending on how much it has built up at that point, can be very difficult to remove, without damage to the chimney.

 It’s hard for the average person to know how much creosote has built up and at what stage, without having an inspection done.

 To help cut down on creosote buildup, Lemler suggested getting just a small, hot fire going at the start. After that, avoid dampering down too much, although a certain amount is unavoidable, especially during very cold snaps. 

 Routine maintenance has other advantages besides safety. A clean stove needs less fuel and has increased efficiency and better draft.

 Spring or early summer is the best time for cleaning, Lemler said, right after winter’s maximum use is over. This allows time for any repairs or part replacement before the next cold season roars in. And by fall and winter, the demand increases for service, Chang said.

 Inspections can be done during winter, but wet or icy weather, not to mention fewer daylight hours, make it much harder for chimney sweeps to do repairs or even get at the problem.

 However, everyone is urged to have an inspection done any time, if they think it’s necessary.

 Some people try to take care of business with their own preventative or maintenance strategies.

 One of the most dangerous practices, Chang said, is “burning out” a fireplace or woodstove at the end of the season, which many people think will take care of any problems and eliminate the need for regular inspections.

 Lemler said, “They put a bunch of paper and maybe accelerants in, too, to get some hot, fast flames going up the chimney.”

 “That’s a big no-no.”

 He said such an intensely hot fire can seriously damage the chimney. A typical wood, fireplace or pellet stove fire might get up to around 800 degrees, whereas a chimney fire could reach temperatures of 3,000-4,000 degrees.

 One or two fires over a chimney’s lifetime might not cause any lasting harm, as long as the chimney is regularly checked. But Chang warned that all it takes is a hairline crack in the mortar of the chimney for a fire to start.

 They said that some people also get a handy friend with a long broom to get up on the roof and sweep out the chimney and think that’s good enough. Or they might occasionally use a “chimney cleaning log,” treated with chemical cleaners for removing creosote. But neither of these methods can replace regular inspections by certified professionals.

 Lemler and Chang also remind people to check their homeowners insurance policy; regular certified inspections might be a requirement for coverage in case of a fire.

 They offered some things people can do themselves during the winter to help maintain their stove or fireplace’s safety and efficiency:

 • Regularly remove ash in the stove.

 • Clean the glass on the front.

 • Burn only well-seasoned – never “green” – wood.

 • Only burn wood or paper products; don’t burn anything plastic or that has a plastic or chemical coating. Lemler said they see a lot of people who burn diapers, which is very damaging to the heating system.

 Here are a few safety tips: keep both a working fire extinguisher and smoke detector nearby, and have a plan of action and/or an escape route for everyone in the home.

 “You can always replace your home, but not your family members,” Lemler pointed out.

 If a fire should erupt in the home, Lemler and Chang recommend the following steps, in order:

 • Call 911.

 • “Close the system down,” i.e., shut the stove door.

 • Leave the building.

 Lemler reminded people not to become lax about what they are doing when lighting up that stove.

 “Be aware that this is a fire inside your home.”

 Lemler and Chang started CC Sweeps in May 2010. They are members of the Oregon Chimney Sweeps Association, the oldest chimney sweeping guild in North America.

 Contact CC Sweeps at 541-35-SWEEP (541-357-9337) or by email at


Oregon Chimney Sweeps Association Inc.

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