Fire in the Hole
Lessons Learned in Damper Deployment
deadly surprise overcame me in early November. I will not be back to my new
“par,” whatever that may be, until February or March. I will probably tell
you all about it sometime. But not right now. The best I can offer is
something from what turns out to be the “good old days”:
You don’t have to live in the country to have a fireplace.
Plenty of city-dwellers have them. A city fireplace is usually a secondary
heat source. In the country, it might be a fireplace or wood stove, period.
I had a girlfriend who, for a time, had only a wood stove
to heat her house.
She was a city girl. She moved here with that starry-eyed
look that says, “Hey, y’all. I’m here in the country! Ain’t it grand?”
With the first frost, she found out what rural living is
She arrived with soft, pale hands and red, manicured
nails. By the middle of that first winter, her hands and forearms bore burn
marks from errant embers. Her nails were ragged and unpolished, with a
little grit and ash ground underneath. She had bags under her eyes, rather
than lavender shadow over them. Her cheerful demeanor grew grumpy as winter
wore on; she’d discovered, you see, that wood stoves require stoking in the
dark of night. And again around 5 a.m.
I’ve spent some time house- and dog-sitting in front of
fireplaces. I, who never created so much as a campfire, have had to learn
the art of building a fire and keeping it going. I have learned all this in
million-dollar homes that are not my own.
I’ve learned about kindling and fatwood. I’ve learned that
newspapers are useful for more than reading.
I’ve learned to appreciate those long-handled butane
And I’ve surely learned about dampers.
My first big lesson came in a meticulous manse that
included valuable antiques, a psychotic cat, and two big, lumbering dogs.
I’d gone a few rounds with that fireplace before — never
could build a fire that stayed lit and lively.
This particular day, it was snowing as I arrived. I was
delighted to discover the makings of a perfect fire already stacked,
arranged, and waiting for me.
Ah, I thought. I’ll just light this baby, make some tea,
and read. The snow will fall, the dogs will snooze beside me, and all will
be right with my world.
I lit a match, tossed it near the kindling and newspaper,
and went to the kitchen.
Halfway there, I stopped in my tracks. The damper! Was it
open or closed? How could I tell? And, where was it, anyway?
I darted back to the fireplace to discover the logs
already ablaze. And smoke streaming into the tastefully decorated room. I
hunkered down and peered into the flames. I saw the damper. It was waaaaay
in the back. To open it, I would have to sear my right arm.
The dogs were in an alert state, running around the room.
I opened the door, and screamed at them to flee. I ran to the teapot, and
threw what amounted to a cupful of water on the blaze. It sizzled. And
continued blazing. I grabbed a vase of flowers in water, and tossed it on
the fire. The effect was minimal.
It was becoming difficult to see. Or breathe. I ran to the
phone. I called the store down the road.
“Martha,” I shouted, “I’m at the McClung place and I need
a man, fast!”
Martha chuckled. I explained my predicament, and asked
that she send someone pronto. The nearest fire department was dozens of
I ran from the smoky house and up the long driveway.
Hoping for help, I jumped around beside the road, waving my bright pink
beret at passing pickups full of hunters. They waved back and kept driving.
Finally, some local fellows arrived. While I was happy to
see them, my heart sank. These fellows and I did not “get along,” due to
some friction involving my news-reporting.
I babbled about the fire and the damper, pointing toward
the house. They ran in, quickly assessed the
situation, and looked at me as if I were some stupid city
girl. One rolled his eyes, rolled up his sleeve, reached in and flipped open
the damper. The smoke swiftly began to clear.
“I’ll bet we don’t read about this in the paper,” he said.
I’m sure I made their day. And I know they sure made mine.