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Something kind of interesting happened last night. Our woodstove is our primary source of heat and works great for that purpose. It’s in the kitchen, sitting on a slate surround, regulation-distance from any wall, with the stovepipe terminating in a masonry chimney that begins in the basement and extends, of course, through the roof. There used to be a trash burner in the basement, so there is a covered hole where that appliance connected to the chimney. When we bought this old house there were crummy old baseboard heaters in all the rooms (hence, no duct work for a furnace), but they were inefficient and as I’ve remodeled rooms, I’ve cut the heaters off the walls. It’s been cold for this area and the woodstove and the fireplace in the living room have seen a lot of use, including last night. You might have guessed where this is going.

I went into the kitchen and it was a tiny bit smoky, which sometimes happens if the stovepipe joints get bumped and it’s windy, enabling the smoke to filter through the joints. But the stovepipe looked fine and the temperature on the stovepipe was where it should be. I told Captain OCD that it seemed kind of smoky, he got up, looked outside, and said, “There’s smoke coming from the basement.” Not, “Sweet, merciful heavens!! There’s smoke!!! Coming from the basement!!!!!” Then I looked outside. While I’ve discovered that I tend to be calm in a serious situation (it’s semi-serious situations where I can get a bit stupidly manic), I do seem to be less than articulate, and here’s where you might want to revisit my Profanity Policy before reading further: “Jesus Fucking Christ!” My car was in that basement, so you can understand my reaction. 

He ran downstairs, C2 asked if she should call 911, and then I ran downstairs:

“Should we call 911?”
“Yes.”

The affirmative answer was enough to scare me, because normally it would be, “Nah, I’ve got it” and then I would have checked to make the final determination myself. C2 dialed and I told the operator that there was a fire in our basement but it was still small and there was a hose on it. She asked if everyone was evacuating from the building and how many that was. She asked for the address and said that they were on their way. Good to know that they get right to the point. In the meantime, C2 had put on warmer clothes in case we had to be outside for a while, on the snow-covered icy driveway and in the freezing temperature.

I took a deep breath and walked through the thick, acrid smoke to see if Captain OCD had gotten the fire out (and to see if he was still standing), and he said he had for the most part. I called 911 back and told her so, and said that they’d not need to come with sirens blaring (it was about 11:30 PM). I didn’t need to tell her that they should still come. I could hear a really loud thumping noise a few minutes before they arrived here, which turned out to be at least one of the chains on their tires that had come loose. They arrived with just flashing lights on. By then, the fire was out, but they checked things out, dumped a bunch of dry fire retardant inside the chimney, used their thermal imager to make sure there were no hotspots left, and told us to enjoy the rest of our evening. But that was impossible: The TV didn’t work because the cable did not enjoy the warmth from the fire.

Here’s what happened: The ash had built up from the base of the chimney up to a little lower than the level of the hole for the trash-burner pipe (which is several feet above the basement floor and about 12 feet below the hole in the chimney for the kitchen stovepipe – the woodstove has been going continuously for a couple of weeks). There was a plug in that hole that popped out, which allowed the chimney to suck up air, which fed the fire, and embers that would normally go up the chimney fell down and through the now-open hole onto what was sitting on the concrete floor around the concrete-block chimney. In this case, several baskets of PVC pipe fittings and boxes of various other kinds of parts. And an old dog bed waiting for the dump. Burning PVC does not smell any better than a burning old dog bed. A few careless mistakes and a set of freak occurrences that colluded in just the wrong combination. Today Captain OCD got a plug that cannot come out and is stripping the soot- and water-soaked insulation from the area and replacing it, as well as the cable for the TV. He said the scariest thing he’s ever done is walk out of the area to get away from the smoke for a minute while the fire was still burning, and this is a man who has had a number of close calls in adverse conditions on mountains and around heavy machinery.

An aside: some people have told us that it is illegal to have a non-functioning fire hydrant as decoration because the fire department might get confused when they respond to a fire. While that’s a load of crap (most people have never read the laws and have no idea what is actually “illegal”), I agree that it’s a good idea to make sure the fire hydrant does not look like it is functioning. Most firefighters know that a fire hydrant is not likely to be in someone’s yard, more than 50 feet away from the road (where there is a functioning fire hydrant). Still, in case of a fire, better to not have even a moment’s hesitation. Ours is not fire hydrant color, it’s close to our house, it has a 3/4″ spigot sticking out of the front of it (a nonstandard size as far as fire hoses go), and, unless it’s been freezing for an extended period, there is always a garden hose screwed into it. Now we know: The firefighters loved it. Ironically, the water was still turned off to that hose bib because of the freeze, so the fire-fighting water came from the old faucet, a couple of feet away.

The good: it could have been so much worse. It didn’t happen on Christmas night, when there were 23 people crammed in here for dinner. The water had been turned back on outside. I thought I was going to have to go to a different ferry dock to pick up C2 from work (more than an hour round-trip instead of five minutes) and Captain OCD would have been asleep on the couch, in which case the fire wouldn’t have been caught in time. Likewise, if it had happened when we were all in bed. Forced to go face-to-face with flames in inappropriate places, Captain OCD has a much healthier respect for fire. It’s made us realize that, duh, what kind of idiot would not put a smoke detector in a basement, a basement where most of the house wiring originates, regardless of the habitability of that basement? Most of the faint smoky smell in the upstairs has already dissipated. I moved the car out before the fire trucks arrived, and the biggest problem was that once on the snowy and ice driveway, the car wouldn’t move (there has never been a more useless foul-weather car built and I don’t understand why the Germans didn’t put a limited-slip differential on their flagship line, especially when their compatriot, Professor Dr. Ing. h.c. Porsche, saw the light decades before), and I’d moved it as far as I could, in perfect position to block both the truck and C2’s car (a ’91 Subaru wagon with 4-wheel drive; after all this unusual snowy weather, I’m a Subaru convert) from getting out of the driveway. It took us a considerable amount of shoveling (Captain OCD on the shovel, me in the car because someone had to periodically determine whether enough shoveling had been done), which is not easy on a gravel driveway, to get the car moved out of the way. Two fire trucks came, both chained up. That, coupled with the weather warming up, means that today there are two wide, nicely cleared tire tracks in our formerly iced-up driveway.The driveway that one of the firefighters fell on when she tried to get back in the truck. After which, her colleagues showed her no mercy. Oh, and no one was hurt, but I hope that that is on the top of the list of Good Things is always implied.