Cantankerous Wisdom: Chimney Fires

By Bill Adams

The other day, I watched a company doing a pretty thorough equipment check. They were working hard on a short piece of booster line with plain brass couplings—an aluminum chimney nozzle on one end and a lightweight one-inch male by 1½-inch female adaptor on the other—both severely corroded. Seeing me watching, they volunteered it was purchased before any of them got on the job and none had ever used it. They eventually removed both, but not after a fight. When asked if they had a booster spanner, they said their rigs haven’t had booster reels for 20 years.

Reminiscing about how chimney fires were handled in the good old days became the raisin squad’s topic of conversation over coffee at the firehouse the next morning. It got ugly. First was the ball-and-chain—an iron ball, which looked like ammunition for a civil war cannon, attached to an eight-inch round steel brush with bristles sharp enough to penetrate concrete and a chain heavy enough to anchor the Queen Mary. It wasn’t bad carting it up the aerial, but carrying it up an extension ladder was a challenging two-person job.

It was lowered it into the chimney about a foot or so. Then in an up-and-down motion, it was scraped against all sides of the flue. The process was repeated until the guys inside started hollering it hit the damper. The intent was to break through and scrape off creosote. The objective was not to break the flue and ruin the chimney. Sometimes it worked and sometimes you had a good worker the next cold day.

At one fire in a wood stove’s flue pipe, the chain turned cherry red and the crew dropped it down the stack. It sounded like a bomb went off. I don’t know how much damage it caused, but I recall the white coats weren’t smiling. On another job in a two-story commercial with a recently retarred and stoned flat roof, they used heavy duty asbestos gloves (now illegal) that could’ve been used in a foundry. When the ball-and-chain was pulled out onto the roof, the tar caught fire. There was a lot of black smoke before a line got to the roof. It was embarrassing. One neighboring department used an eight-foot pike pole to poke down through a creosote clogged chimney. They dropped it. I wanted to ask if they were trying to harpoon the fire, but thought better. I never heard how they removed it.

Everyone had chimney kits, usually a large metal bucket holding some soggy chimney flares, asbestos gloves, an asbestos blanket to hold in front of a fire place when using the ball-and-chain, a small scoop; and air-drops—plastic sandwich bags filled with dry chem. It wasn’t perfect. One time hot ashes were scooped into the bucket and inadvertently set on the floor—permanently discoloring it. The new bucket had roller castors on the bottom.

After real asbestos was outlawed, Kevlar® gloves and a heavy canvas tarp were used. Once, the tarp never made it back in the bucket. On the next chimney call, they radioed outside for a tarp. Some whacko brought in a lightweight nylon salvage cover just as the ball-and-chain started down the chimney. They used it anyhow. Nylon covers are fire resistant, not fire proof. Smoke damage was minimal, the homeowner was upset, and the chief was irate.

When chimney nozzles for booster lines first came out, they performed flawlessly—sometimes better than the people using them. One crew radioed the engine to charge the booster and lowered the nozzle into the chimney before they made sure water was flowing. That was a mistake. That red hose bubbled up, charred and split open like a hot dog on a grill. Another ticked off chief.

The original chimney nozzle, patented in 1983 in Vermont, was exclusively marketed by Jaffrey Fire Protection. Task Force Tips (TFT) eventually acquired Jaffrey’s assets including the nozzle. Rod Carringer, TFT’s chief marketing officer, says, “The current Chimney Snuffer nozzle is nearly identical to the original Jaffrey units. It’s a registered trademark of Task Force Tips. We packaged it in a bag with some hose, a valve and an adaptor. We put TFT on the bag, and on the machined aluminum, but it IS the original Jaffrey unit. It has continued in production continuously since Jaffrey introduced it.” He continues, “One of the adapters we added is a one-inch to garden hose thread. At only 12 gallons per hour, it is easily supplied with a garden hose as well.” That makes sense—garden hose is cheaper than booster hose.

I thought it wise that TFT supplies a 25-ft length of hose and a shut-off valve in the kit. Both could’ve come in handy 30 years ago. TFT has a four-page operational and maintenance manual, accessible online. Although the Chimney Snuffer is a simple and basic tool, it is still a tool—one specifically designed to be used above a fire. It should be properly maintained and used safely—just like an axe, a cutoff saw, or an aerial ladder. Carringer, also a member of the Center Township (IN) VFD, sent along some tips his department uses for chimney fires. One is to use positive pressure ventilation in conjunction with using the Chimney Snuffer. Brilliant.

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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