…fire. And that’s what we had in our chimney a week ago. During the six years (well, half-years) we’ve basked in the warmth of a roaring fire every night in Cañar, where temperatures can drop to the low 50’s and 40’s, we’ve often said that having a fireplace is key to our sweet life here. We invite visitors for the weekend, or longer, knowing they won’t be shivering once the sun goes down, but instead relaxed and cozy until bedtime. And it’s comforting to know that if the day is miserable and rainy and cold, we can have a fire any time we get too chilled.
On a usual day, Michael builds a fire about 4:00 PM, in preparation for his cocktail hour, and whether I’m out in the garden or in my studio, I’ve grown accustomed to the delicious aroma of a freshly lit wood and the anticipation of joining him about 5:00 for a glass of wine and to review the day. But that afternoon, a few minutes after Michael had lit the fire, I walked into the patio and breathed in a pungently sweet odor I’d never known before. In fact, it was overwhelmingly sweet! Trying to identify its source I looked up to see billows of dense brown smoke coming out the chimney, distinctly different from the usual gray puffs. This, in turns out, was the creosote burning, the combustible wood tar deposit that had built up inside the chimney over the years. (Below the barely seen chimney from inside patio.)
I called Michael to take a look, and he recognized immediately what had happened. He reduced the fire, the clouds of brown smoke disappeared, and we settled down for our usual routine of dinner and two episodes of Justified, Season 3 on my laptop (OK, our entertainment standards may go way down in Cañar, but Justified is great fun). By 9:00 or so, the wood in the fireplace nearly ashes, we went to bed at for our usual long deep sleep. (Luckily it wasn’t too long or too deep, if you know what I mean.)
Early the next morning, when Michael went to make coffee, he found the living room full of smoke and the beams around the chimney glowing red. Ashes and live cinders had dropped from the burned beams onto the wood floor in front of the fireplace, and in nearby baskets of wood chips, kindling and paper. The fire in the chimney had smoldered all night and was still burning.
Thus began a day during which we repeated many times, “We are so lucky!” Lucky the roof didn’t catch fire, lucky the baskets full of wood chips and paper didn’t catch fire, lucky we didn’t wake to find more damage, and lucky an open-air patio separated us from the smoke-filled living room. (Smoke detectors are unknown here…)
Our house is made of thick adobe walls constructed around a wood frame structure. We could see where the open beams around the fireplace were charred and smoking, but there was no way of knowing if the wood frame inside the walls was smoldering. Judging by the amount of steam that emerged when Michael used a garden hose, inside the chimney and then outside on the roof, the wood inside the walls was still hot. It took a couple of hours before he felt the fire was out, before I finally got my morning coffee and we could survey the damage.
We called our imperturbable architect, Lourdes Abad, in Cuenca, and she came a few days later with Maestro Miguel, the older man who put the original adobe mud finish on our house. We’re waiting to hear her recommendations, but we expect we’ll have to tear out and rebuild the chimney and maybe tear out some of the walls to replace the beams.
This brings up the question of how to keep this from happening again. Chimney fires evoke images of The Great Fire of London, in 1666, that destroyed 13,000 houses, 87 churches and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The fire also gave rise to the first ever building regulations that altered the design of chimneys and created an industry of children chimney sweeps.
The climbing boys, and sometimes girls, were technically called chimney sweeps apprentices, and were indentured to a master sweep, who being an adult, was too large to fit into a chimney. He would be paid by the parish to teach orphans or paupers the craft. It was generally agreed that six was a good age to train a boy, although some were as young as four.
The work was dangerous, and the children could get jammed in the flue, suffocate or burn to death. As the soot was a carcinogen, and as the apprentices slept under the soot sacks that were rarely washed, they were prone to Chimney Sweeps Cancer, apparently one of the first cancers recognized as related to environmental conditions. (How would you like to work for this master sweep?)
OK. Enough about chimney sweeps. You can tell I’ve been to Wikipedia.
After years of saying we couldn’t live in Cañar without a fireplace, we find that of course we can. We do what everyone else here does when evening comes: we get out the fingerless gloves, wrap a scarf around the neck, put on an extra sweater and go to bed early.
Stay tuned, dear friends, and send suggestions and words of advice.