Where there’s smoke there’s…

…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.

Larry + mike

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.)

patio interior 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.

fire in chimney 2

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…)

fireplace full shot

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.



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30 thoughts on “Where there’s smoke there’s…

  1. Hi Judy,

    How scary! I’m so glad you both got out of this unscathed. I hope you don’t have to do too much rebuilding.

    Here’s some practical advice when you get your chimney rebuilt. We got worried about such a fire in our woodstove at our cottage several years ago and bought a chimney brush with wires connecting it top and bottom and every year or two now one of us goes to the top of the chimney and the other positions herself (it’s usually me) at the bottom and we haul the brush up and down the chimney, which removes the creosote. It’s kind of messy down below, but it very much reduces the chance of a chimney fire.

    Hope this is helpful.

    A big hug, Jennifer

  2. Inserting metal tube? We never had a functioning damper, finally got a gas insert (against my protests), and I know you won’t do that…but perhaps a tube of sorts inserted from roof to base?
    I’m off to buenos aires march 10th, at least I’ll be on your continent!
    Xox shoshana

  3. At The University of New Mexico to finish our degrees after two years in La Comuna Sisid Ayllu Llakta, 1969-1970, I had my goals set: a flush toilet, heat, English. Albuquerque was at minus ten degrees with freezing sand blasting the eyes. The apartment shortage was absolute. The one we could see had a toilet with solid block of ice–not expected to melt until spring. So we moved in with our stuff at Professor Florence Holly Ellis’s adobe in Old Corrales. The fire was blasting, my dog was killing her chickens, the beam caught fire, the fire department chopped a five foot by six foot hole in the adobe wall, snow drifted into the living room, we moved into our camper and nearly asphixiated ourselves with electric heat (compliments of our grad student host) and the windows shut tight, and my courses at The University were Chaucer and Beowolf (not the English I had craved to hear again), and that cheeseburger to which I had paid homage–I was sicker from that Texas beefburger than I’d ever been with amoebas in Ecuador. So huddling and wearing two heavy ponchos and arising late and retiring early were the choices. A radio with Armed Forces news crackled The Battle of The Boyne, Kent State, Woodstock. I listened to Janis Joplin and Cash/Kristofferson–as did the other fifteen inhabitants of The Ron Household. I love your chronicles which trigger thoughts of The Good Old Days. Barbara

  4. We had that same thing happen, although our fire brought the fire department and lots of hubub. I’m glad your fire wasn’t more serious.

  5. Wow, Judy and Michael, I can empathize since we have had two chimney fires since we moved into our house in 1977, the first one a real volcano. But because we have a massive rock faced chimney, both were allowed to burn themselves out, but the tile chimney liner was damaged significantly in both instances. It turns out the flu was too large and just didn’t get hot enough to create a decent draft.Then we installed an insulated stainless steel liner and have had negigible creosote buildup since then. Might you be able to do something similar? Live and learn…and learn…and learn…. Thank goodness you are okay! (This is probably a dumb question, but does Cañar have a fire department ?)

  6. I had a chimney fire once several years ago. It was very, very scary. It was lucky that there was no damage to the house structure. Before it was all over I had 3 fireman standing in my livingroom with their boots on. Jon and I have a fire almost every evening in the winter so I have my chimney cleaned once a year. I also use those special logs to break up the creosote once or twice during the season. I am sure they are not available at your local grocery store.
    Again, I am so happy that nothing worse happened. Love, Irene

  7. I recall owning some brushes and tools for cleaning one’s chimney when we lived in a log cabin in Minnesota. Bought, I think, at the local home store or hardware, but I’ll bet still around someplace on the internet. We just went up on the roof and stuffed the thing down the chimney and pulled up and out came the soot and cresote. Of course, in Minnesota one can call a chimney sweep (adult) who will do the dirty job for you for a fee.

  8. Oh Yeah, chimney fires are reallllly scary things.

    I remember someone telling me that their fire was so huge that the whole house shook.
    That is why the first thing I bought after installing an air-tight stove was a chimney brush and enough extensions to do the whole chimney. Cleaned it every year!

    And gave instructions and the brush to the people who bought the house.

  9. What a near catastrophe, Judy! I’m heartened to know there will be a happy ending when you’ve got your fireplace again. I hope the work proceeds smoothly. In the meantime, I recommend a bed buddy in the microwave to add to the arsenal of fingerless gloves and the rest.

    What I loved most about this story is how it shows your philosophy of life, and Michael’s: not “how awful this is” but “how lucky we are.”

  10. Judy y Miguel, Sorry to hear about the fire. For our wood stove, we burn a creosote log, which helps to attenuate the problem of soot build up. Can you buy creosote logs there? Good luck with your rehab. After everything is done, you’ll be glad you did it.

  11. Judy and Michael, I would say it is time that Cañar was introduced to the inexpensive smoke detector. And yes, is there a fire department in Cañar?

  12. Oooh, close call! Preston’s suggestion sounds good, if you can get the materials. And Joann’s bed buddy idea–excellent temporary aid. But I personally can’t imagine living in such a cold place without some kind of heat. I’m soft, I’ll admit. I’m sure you’ll work out a good solution.

    We’re enjoying Justified too. We’re in the season that has Mags the Matriarch. Sometimes a few too many dead bodies per episode, but it’s mostly well done. Similar in murder & mayhem but a totally different era is Hell on Wheels, which is not a biker series. Takes place mostly in the moving camp during the first trans continental railroad construction. Also a friend turned us on to Annika Bengston, crime reporter, a swedish series.

  13. Hola, I would make sure I had a good amount of Marshmallows at hand!

    Hope you stay warm and have a good “ruana”

  14. Yes, Cañar has fire-fighting “Bomberos,” as does every small town, but there were no flames to bring them, and it’s better we put it out ourselves. I can imagine the water damage to our wood floors and mud walls….

  15. Susan – Mags the Matriarch is definitely the best season of Justified, but later seasons have their own charms, so we’re still with it. Thanks for other suggestions; we have many nights ahead of us needing entertainment. And a suggestion for you: Borgen (a Danish series about woman prime minister. Fascinating!)

  16. Hi Macon – No smoke detectors in this part of the world, as far as I know. And yes, we pay taxes for local Bomberos, fire trucks, but I shudder to think what they would have done with big hoses and tanks of water. Better Michael on a ladder with a garden hose…

  17. HI Bruce – someone else just wrote us about a creosote log, which would surely have folks here rolling on the floor at the idea. Truth is, not many use fireplaces, even if they have them. Most often a place to display fake flower arrangement.

  18. HI Jerry: No chimney brushes here, or creosote logs. But workers are here today tearing down chimney and others will come later this week to rebuild with a steel flue. Let’s hope it all works as well as it has, once done.

  19. HI Barbara – yeah, I’m hearing all sorts of chimney fire stories and ways to avoid them. Trouble is, nothing exists here for cleaning chimneys because so few people actually use them. The Cañari gather warmth from their wood cook fires; the middle-class folks might have a fireplace in their modern house, but most often it’s a place to display fake flower arrangement. But workers are here today tearing down chimney…we’ll see what happens.

  20. Irene: Thanks for your chimney fire story, seems nearly everyone has had one. We have none of the preventive tools here, so workers are here today tearing out the chimney. Others are suppose to come on Wednesday to rebuild. We’ll see what happens…

  21. Hi Shoshana – yes, the idea is to insert a steel flue from roof to top of fireplace. Who knows if this will work? Stay tuned and have fun in Buenos Aires!

  22. Hi Jennifer: Well, fireplaces are so rare here that tools such as cleaning brushes, or creosote log, which several have written about, don’t exist. But workers are here today tearing down the roof chimney, and more coming to deal with inside, so we’ll see what happens….

  23. I have a wood stove and can put off having it cleaned by not shutting the fire too low which is what builds the creasote. Also, periodically I purposely build a hot fire and let it go and it will burn out all the build up. I am sure it will be nice to ‘start over ‘ with everything all new and inspected.

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