The Birds, the Bees, and Chimney Disease

Keeping the home fires hot, safe, and critter-free

Robert Clark

Ah, November. There’s a nip in the air as autumn prepares its slide into winter, and nothing seems more seductive than snuggling up in front of that first crackling fire of the season. Visions of hot apple cider and cozy conversations swirl as the damper is opened, the fire is lit — and a wasps’ nest drops from the chimney into the flames, releasing a dozen singed and angry survivors who swarm out, intent on wreaking revenge on any human within stinging distance.

This scenario, the stuff of nightmares and classic horror films, can happen, but it is not inescapable. Wacked out wasps and other types of fire hazards can easily be avoided with regular chimney checkups.

“The most unusual thing to me is how people take their fireplaces and chimneys for granted,” says Ron Rust, a Chimney Safety Institute of America certified chimney sweep, board member of the National Chimney Sweep Guild, and owner of Top Hat Chimney Sweep. “But the fireplace and chimney are significant parts of a house that need and deserve regular attention, just like any other part of a home. The National Fire Protection Association recommends annual inspections of fireplaces, chimneys, and solid fuel and gas burning appliances.”

While the title “chimney sweep” might conjure up images of a happy, soot-faced Bert, with his “chim chiminey” sweepers singing and dancing their way across the rooftops of Columbia, it is quite a demanding and respected profession. CSIA-certified chimney sweeps are not just repairmen who have an unusual penchant for chimney care. They are experienced specialists who have completed training, taken exams, and maintained certification either through re-examination or continuing education credits every three years.

“I’ve found everything inside of chimneys, from snakes to ducks and soccer balls,” says Ron.

Snakes and wasps raining down from the chimney are not the only horrifying prospects that keep fireplace owners awake at night. The less charming realities of more Disney-friendly creatures often find a chimney to be an irresistible piece of real estate. And while Mary Poppins might appreciate the constant whooshing and chirping noises emanating from her hearth — she has, after all, urged us all to “feed the birds” — most homeowners find the incessant racket, at best, irritating.

“The majority of birds that get into chimneys are called chimney swifts,” explains Ron. “Since birds and squirrels get into flues, the need for chimney tops and animal guard/spark arrestors became apparent and are now part of the current standards.”

Unfortunately, once a family of chimney swifts has taken up residence, a fire lover can do nothing to remove them. Swifts are federally protected birds and cannot legally be disturbed. After they’ve departed, a cap can be installed to ensure they don’t make return annual visits. But, until they decide to terminate their lease, a homeowner has no choice but to wait them out. And the only thing worse than a chirping chimney swift is one that has abruptly ceased to chirp.

Steven Lantry, a CSIA certified chimney sweep and National Fireplace Institute specialist, co-owns Mid Carolina Chimney Service with Cindy, his wife. “Birds and other animals commonly get into chimneys and often die in them,” he says. “The primary reason is the lack of a proper chimney cap. The nesting material is potentially the most dangerous thing in this scenario because it may cause a flue blockage. Unfortunately, sometimes living birds will come in the chimney after others have died. The living ones do not seem to mind their fallen friends, but the homeowner will complain about the smell. Oh, and let’s not forget about the flies.”

If the thought of birds, flies, and foul odors is not enough to convince a fireplace enthusiast to seek out a qualified chimney sweep, then the possibility of hidden safety risks or a chimney not properly maintained that could lead to an uncontrolled chimney fire should be considered. These risks are most often unseen because they happen inside the chimney system.

According to the CSIA, dirty chimneys can create an environment favorable to fuel a chimney fire, which can lead to destruction of property, bodily injury, and even death. It is worth mentioning, points out Steven, that most venting-related deaths are not from contact with flames, but with gases like carbon monoxide or inhaling smoke from a fire. This applies to gas-vented and wood-burning fireplaces.

“Most chimney fires can be prevented by simple maintenance done by a CSIA-certified sweep and will give homeowners peace of mind knowing the flue gases are properly moving out of the system to the outside where they belong.

“People must be aware that there is some associated risk with building a fire inside your home,” Steven adds. “However, if the system has been inspected and properly maintained, this can be done safely. Keep the area around the fireplace free of combustible items, keep the fire appropriate in size, and observe how it appears to be working. And always check the damper to ensure it is all the way open before you start your fire.”


To Build a Fire

Fires require fuel, air, and heat, so building a successful blaze is dependent on proper wood and careful tending.

“In all cases, use well-seasoned wood,” says Steven. “Not wet wood. Remember, a hot fire is a clean fire and a smoky fire produces excess creosote deposits. In most cases, good split hardwoods are the best choice.”

Wood should be cut and split a minimum of six months prior to burning, stacked off the ground, and covered. Never burn treated lumber or painted wood as this will result in toxic fumes being released into the air and the home.

Armed with suitable wood and a clean, inspected chimney, the selection of a fire building technique is a personal decision each fireplace owner must make on his or her own. Many options are available, each with its own army of advocates ready to declare their method “the best.”

One approach, called an upside down fire, starts with the largest logs at the base, positioned with no space in between the wood. A second layer of smaller logs is then stacked on top in a similar, space-free manner. Layering continues, with the logs decreasing in size, all the way up to the top where strips of crumpled newspaper are placed. Tinder, such as a fire-starter square, is then lit on top of the paper, causing each layer to ignite the larger layer beneath it. Champions of the upside down fire claim it will burn longer and with less maintenance than fires built using other techniques.

Another procedure, defended by its equally passionate devotees, starts with the newspaper on the floor of the fireplace. Top it with fatwood (heartwood of pine trees filled with highly flammable sap). Fatwood does emit resin, so regular chimney inspection for carbon buildup is essential when using this method of kindling. If fatwood isn’t readily available, a starter log may be used in its stead. Seasoned and dried wood is stacked on the andirons with plenty of space between the logs to allow for air flow. Once the fire is blazing and has burned through most of the wood, a “holding log,” a large, slightly green piece of oak is put on top. Adherers to this approach claim that it creates a slow burning fire that maintains a steady heat output.

Other fire starting techniques, such as tepee fires, also start with the kindling at the base. The difference is primarily in the configuration of the logs. That distinction does nothing to damper the deliberation. Even a Reddit thread debates the best technique, with supporters standing firmly in their fire-making camp of choice.

However, with proper upkeep and the correct wood, the starting technique matters less than the ultimate outcome: a cheery, satisfying fire safely enjoyed, both in the home and out.


Outdoor Fire Tips

Outdoor fireplaces and fire pits are highly coveted design features that homeowners can use not just for warmth, comradery, and fire gazing, but also for food preparation. This type of cooking is best done with a beer in hand, according to many fire pit admirers.

In the open air, with drink in hand, meals that might be considered mundane indoors become irresistible. Shish kebobs, fish wrapped in foil, corn on the cob, and even biscuits and cookies become delectable cuisine.

For baking the aforementioned delicacies, make sure the fire has burned long enough to create plenty of hot coals. Using a shovel or stick, scrape the coals to one side, place the foil-wrapped fare at the bottom, then rake the coals back on top. Cooking times differ from dish to dish. Fish, for example, is usually ready in 15 to 20 minutes, but the duration ultimately depends on the heat of the coals and the size of the fish. This same method can also be used for preparing corn on the cob or baking bread or biscuits in a cast iron Dutch oven.

Baked goods can also be prepared with the use of a reflector oven. Made either from tin or aluminum, a reflector oven is enclosed on all but one side. When set by an open fire, it bakes food by reflecting the radiant heat inward. Because it doesn’t add any smoke flavoring to the food, this method is ideal for bread and dessert dishes. A favorite biscuit recipe, for example, normally prepared in a conventional oven, can be made in a reflector oven. Once the ingredients are mixed, the dough is dropped by spoonfuls onto a lightly greased sheet of aluminum foil cut to fit the shelf of the oven. The oven is placed near the fire, and the biscuits are typically browned and ready in about 8 to 10 minutes. Due to fluctuating temperatures, frequent biscuit progress peeking is required.

Russell Dickson, an outdoor enthusiast who has spent many hours cooking over fire pits, has used all these culinary strategies: foil, Dutch oven, and reflector ovens. For roasting meat directly over the coals, he recommends the use of hardwood.

“Oak, hickory, pecan, or mesquite — they’re the best for cooking meat,” says Russell. “Softer woods don’t give off as much heat, and you end up constantly stoking your fire.”

Wood from a conifer, like pine or cedar, should be avoided because those types of trees are highly resinous. “When the resin burns, it goes out into the atmosphere and will cover your meat,” says Russell. “Your meat will taste like pine tar.”

And not even the best tasting beer can make a pine-tarred shish kabob seem appealing.

Worse than the risk of an unappetizing, resin-covered meal is the possibility of breathing in toxins should the wrong material make its way into the fire pit. If a plant has the word “poison” in its name, like poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, it should never be burned because the resulting smoke will contain contaminants that, if inhaled, can be fatal. Other items should be avoided as well: oleander shrubs, ocean driftwood, plastics, rubber, household trash. All can release harmful chemicals when burned and should not be included in your campfire fuel.

James “Jimbo” Haynes, another avid outdoorsman, echoes all the above recommendations and safety considerations, but saves his most ardent advice for a subject near and dear to all fire lovers’ hearts: the proper preparation of a premium s’more.

“The key,” says Jimbo, “is not to burn the marshmallow. It should be puffed out, slightly brown, with nothing hard in the center.”

He is also adamant about graham cracker and chocolate assemblage, claiming that the radiant heat from the fire should melt the chocolate before adding the marshmallow. “It should drip all over your fingers,” he says emphatically. “If you make a s’more with a hard piece of chocolate or a hard center in the marshmallow, you might as well throw it away.”

In his years spent around a fire, Jimbo has sadly witnessed many an inexperienced youth make bad s’more decisions. “They think it’s cool to have the marshmallow on fire,” says Jimbo, pausing momentarily before adding, “No. Just. No.”

As the holidays approach, avoid s’more bad decisions. Most importantly, keep both the indoor and outdoor home fires burning safely with a generous amount of “chim chiminey, chim chim cher-oo!”