(Reposted, as yesterday’s version somehow had the commenting section disabled.)
You might want to sit down with a nice hot beverage for the next 2700-odd words.
Mid-January in the Cariboo region of British Columbia, Canada this year, it went from -3 Celsius on Saturday to -35 on Sunday. Our woodstove was working hard to keep us warm and fed.
My cooking project on Tuesday was chili, but that morning I realized a few ingredients were absent, so I made a trip to town. My ten-year-old daughter went with me.
As we drove along the highway, we heard a strange squeal.
“What was that weird noise, Chickadee?” I asked.
Chickadee said, “I’m not sure. I think a bottle of something broke in the back. And I heard a crackling when we were going out the driveway, but I figured it was ice cracking because of the bumps we were going over.”
When we got out of the car at the grocery store, we opened a back door to have a look. There sat a six-pack of grape Zevia soda, each can deformed, all lumpy and bloated. One had its aluminum top blown clear off to the other side of the seats. There was frozen Zevia everywhere.
I made a little video and said, “It’s probably going to smell really purple in here for a while.”
I was afraid to touch the cans lest more of them explode. Besides, I couldn’t really dump them in the trash can outside of Save-On Foods and have one explode on someone dropping other garbage in.
We hurried through the store, got what we needed, and headed home. As we drove along, Chickadee said, “Dad’s not going to be happy about his Zevias exploding. What a mess…”
She was cut off by a startling bang behind us.
“Aaaagh! WHAT was that?” I said.
Chickadee peered cautiously around her seat and said, “I think another Zevia exploded.”
“Well, I wanted to stop at the corner store to grab a cheap beer for the chili, but now I really just want to go straight home and get these cans out of the car,” I said. “I’ve got a good Barkerville beer in the fridge. I can sacrifice part of that.”
“Yeah, great idea,” Chickadee said, also eager to get home.
Once we got into our yard, I parked a good distance from the house. I instructed Chickadee to get away in case another can exploded. With my wool-jacketed arm over my face, I gingerly pulled the cans out of the car and parked them in a snowbank. I didn’t want them near the area where the kids might come out to play on the trampoline or sleds.
Inside the house, Chickadee told her dad about the Zevia. He went out and cleaned up the car with his Shop-Vac.
I set about making chili. There was a big pot of kidney beans to cook, Italian sausage and ground beef to brown (with help from my 12-year-old son J-Bird), vegetables to chop, etc.
Every time I’d get a nice firebase under the wood in the stove and close the doors and dampers, within minutes it’d die down again. I battled with that for a few hours.
Chickadee and I were talking in the kitchen around 4:00 p.m. She suddenly got silent and with an anxious expression she glanced upward toward her room.
“What was that noise?” she said.
“I don’t know. I didn’t hear anything,” I said.
“It sounded like a pop. Maybe my phone battery exploded,” she said as she ran up the stairs. She uses one of my old phones and the battery is getting worn out, so that was a possibility.
Chickadee returned to the kitchen and said her phone was fine. We shrugged it off and kept talking.
A few minutes later Chickadee said, “Mom, listen. Do you hear that sound?”
We got quiet as I listened carefully.
“That’s just some creosote loosening in the chimney pipe,” I said.
Chickadee went off to the living room to do other things while I kept cooking. Within a few minutes, I heard larger chunks coming down the chimney.
I went outside to stand by the garden area to get a good view of the house roof. What I saw was a cherry red glow all around the chimney pipe’s rain-cap, with sparks dripping out and the occasional flame shooting up.
I hurried back into the house. The chimney pipe started doing the train-roar, about which I’d heard but had never experienced. All the stove dampers and doors were shut as tightly as they could close, so there was nothing else I could do to slow down the fire.
“Everyone, get into the basement,” I called out to my three youngest kids who were in the next room.
Before they could hesitate and ask questions, I added, “Chimney fire!”
At that, they all shot out of there like it was rehearsed. I grabbed my phone from its charger and dialed 911 while I ran down the stairs after them.
As I explained to the emergency operator what was happening, I ran back up to move the pots off the stove and to grab my bin full of handwritten journals.
The fire dispatch lady told me the folks at the local Fire Department were on another call but that they’d get to us next. She advised that we go outside and wait.
I still had my coat and boots on from my run out to see the chimney, but the kids’ boots and coats were upstairs by the other doors. Leaving clothes in our un-insulated basement made them nearly as cold as leaving them outside, so we avoided doing that, but there were plenty of extra coats in the mudroom closets.
I said, “Grab any warm clothing and footwear you can find down here and put it on.”
Chickadee pulled someone’s black coat off a hook. She couldn’t see the armholes because it was dark and our basement lighting is dim, so she flung it around her shoulders like a blanket. She was shaking from cold and fear, clinging to me.
My 15-year-old son, Eagle, stepped into a pair of his dad’s boots and grabbed a jacket.
“Gloves! Hats! Scarves!” I said. “Put it all on. I don’t know how long we’ll be out there.”
J-Bird donned my long black suede coat with a fake fur ruff around the hood, the one I call my “Alice In Wonderland” coat.
I ran around the side of the house to see how the chimney was looking. It was still fiery and red. I made a little video. Chickadee ran past me to the shed.
“Ah, good idea,” I said to her. “We can keep warm in there.”
I went back to the carport to get the boys, but Chickadee soon came running back saying the shed was locked. And my keys were upstairs.
A few minutes later, I went around to look at the chimney again, with J-Bird following me, commenting on how he felt like a Russian in the heavy coat, calling me “Comrade”. He was unperturbed by all of this.
The kids soon announced that they saw the lights of fire trucks out on the road at the end of our driveway. Our little Pom-Chi, B-Dog, started barking. I didn’t want him getting in the way of the fire trucks, so I picked him up.
Chickadee reached desperately for him, saying, “No! You can’t take my emotional support animal!”
Fine. I handed him to her and went out to meet the firefighters.
At least six cheerful, upbeat humans in fire gear moved swiftly into and around our house. They said we were fine to wait in the basement, which we did, sitting on the couch.
It was only a few minutes until the firefighters were all back downstairs. They explained that what they did was toss a bit of water into the firebox and then they removed the remaining wood.
I told them how we’d just used a “CSL” (chimney sweep log) last weekend before it got real cold, in hopes of reducing creosote before our next full-on chimney cleaning.
They said that this kind of thing isn’t uncommon when we get sudden cold weather, as we burn more wood trying to keep the place warm, and something about the moisture in the wood and the creosote… blockage… frozen… smoke can’t get through… so the fire decides to burn out the creosote… something like that. (My kids are trying to help me piece it together as I write.) I didn’t take it all in as clearly as I could have if I hadn’t been in such a state of shock.
One of the firemen filled out a form stating that we could not use the wood stove until the chimney was certified as safe by an inspector. I signed it, they took a picture of it for a copy, and we thanked them. One said, “You can repay us by barbecue.”
I happily told them they are most welcome to barbecue at our house.
He laughed and said he says that to everyone they help, but I told them, “Really, if ever you drive by and see barbecue happening, by all means come on in.”
They assured us that we did the right thing by calling for them, and then they went on their way.
Relieved, we went back upstairs. J-Bird dragged the spare oil-filled electric heater from the boys’ room on the top floor and I carried it down the stairs. We set it up in the kitchen and plugged it in, but with the temperature as cold as it was, it would be many hours before it would make the slightest increase in room warmth. We also had our gas fireplace going non-stop in the living area.
Making it colder was the fact that the vertical blinds in our kitchen broke a few weeks ago. I had called about a replacement but found it’d be a few hundred dollars. I decided not to bother, as we’re hoping to renovate the kitchen and upgrade the windows. It always did make a difference in the warmth when we’d close those blinds. Without them, it was just iced-up, cracked, thin, 1970s windows with aluminum frames between us and the outdoors, and not much insulation in the walls.
I finished cooking the chili on the gas range. My Barkerville High Stakes IPA loaned a quarter of itself to the recipe, and over the next few days of eating it, the whole family agreed that the chili was amazing. The three-quarters of a beer that remained (which I then had to drink lest it went to waste) wasn’t exactly unwelcome, either.
It was a chilly sleep that night, even with the oil heaters in our bedrooms. Then all day Wednesday and Thursday we wore extra clothes and blankets indoors. Sleep was difficult. The electric oil heaters in the bedrooms on the top floor don’t provide much heat. The boys slept in the loft, which is always the warmest with the rising of the heat and no windows to steal any of it. Chickadee and I each snuggled up with beanbags we’d heated in the microwave. At least we still had electricity.
I remind myself that I’ve been through worse: There was a time, back in the wilderness of Alaska, when it was -2 Celsius indoors with the woodstove cranked. We’d just built the house the previous summer and hadn’t insulated the floors yet. Plus there was a big gap around the chimney pipe. It was just me and my oldest daughter, who was three months old at the time, as her father had flown to Juneau for emergency surgery. The generator refused to start, so we couldn’t use the baseboard auxiliary heat. My baby and I were bundled up fully-dressed in snow gear under several blankets. I could see my breath when I peeked my head out of the blankets in the morning. But that’s another story in the Alaska book.
During this recent cold snap, as grateful as I was for electricity and natural gas, I cringed at the thought of how much we were using. And it barely helped, but I feebly reminded myself it was only temporary. The chimney sweep planned on being here Saturday.
Oh, but that wasn’t all! On Friday morning, we awoke to zero running water. After I got past the initial discouragement, which took a few hours under extra blankets on the couch and a cup of coffee (we still had water in our kettles and what was left in the reverse osmosis holding tank) I got on top of the snow melting process like I’d had to do for weeks, sometimes even months, during winters in the Alaskan wilderness.
Chickadee and I took the car to town and bought boxed water (a couple gallons of water in a thick plastic bag with a spigot that sticks out of the box), burnable bowls and cups, plastic spoons, and lots of hot chocolate mix to get us through till Dad could fix whatever was wrong with the water.
Dad had been asleep till late morning, so we didn’t know the details until we got home from town with our groceries. He explained that he’d been having a shower in the basement bathroom when he got home from work late that night. Water pressure dropped and he got only hot water. Cold water was spraying out from the wall. He got out and shut off the main water valve for the house. He tried to figure out how to fix it, but at that time of night he was too tired. He tried again before leaving for work in the afternoon, but couldn’t get it done.
Thankfully, that day “warmed up” to the mid-teens below zero, so it wasn’t AS cold in the house but certainly not warm. I still wore ski pants, a plaid flannel coat, and a toque. I fried some apple fritters in hot oil on the gas range during the day, which helped the kitchen be less cold. It took all day to warm up the living room and office to the point that I could type anything without my fingers freezing.
I texted a neighbour, Plumber Woman, who has a plumbing business (which is a superhero service really) with her husband, to ask if we could possibly hire them to get our water running. She said she’d send her husband over when he got home. In the meantime, I rounded up all the empty buckets I could find in the basement and in the greenhouse. Chickadee and I towed a big sled full of them over to the Superheroes’ house, to fill up on water from their tap so we could have some toilet flushes. As we got there, Plumber Man pulled into their yard. He said we wouldn’t need to haul buckets of water as he was sure he’d have us up and running within an hour.
We met him at our house and sure enough, within an hour, we had running water. To celebrate, I dumped our pots of melted snow down the drain and instead used glorious hot water from the tap to wash dishes. Even though Dad had shut the hot water heater breaker off in the middle of the night, we still had enough hot water in the tank for that task.
Our neighbour did the job for free. He said it was a temporary fix, and we can’t use the basement shower anymore because he had to crimp that broken water line off. We need proper inside-wall plumbing, as it was inappropriately installed there in an outside wall. He said he can get us a new shower and tub surround at wholesale cost, install it, and do the plumbing, and he won’t charge us labour. The soonest he can do it is March. We have the top floor bathtub so waiting is not a big deal. What a blessing to have help!
Then on Saturday the chimney sweep came. He did a cleaning and said everything looked great. Whew! I lit a fire as soon as he left and for more celebration I cooked a big batch of chicken pakora on the woodstove.
That’s enough drama for now. I’m hereby putting in a request for a calm remainder of this winter.
Here are a few videos to go with the story.
This is what the chimney looked like within ten minutes of my first sighting of it being on fire.
While I was bringing in pots of snow to melt, this buck wandered by. Deer are as common as crows around here.
Here’s what exploded frozen Zevia soda looks like.
And here is what joy looks like!