Scott Evans repositioned himself, bracing his legs and getting a better grip on the fireplace damper, reaching up inside the chimney from inside the house. The damper was closed but crooked, and would need to be straightened before he could open it.
Evans was able to reach a hand around the rectangular shape of the damper, but even with that additional leverage, it still wouldn't budge.
"It felt really heavy and I just couldn't move it," Evans recalled. "I decided to get up on the roof and look down into the chimney from above."
When he aimed his flashlight beam down into the chimney, it illuminated two eyes, which belonged to a "really huge, I mean, huge" raccoon.
Evans owns and operates S-K Evans Home and Building Services, Palmerton, a property maintenance company with a focus on chimney inspection, cleaning, installation (chimneys and gas logs) and repair in Carbon, Schuylkill and Monroe counties. Raccoons, birds, mice and squirrels are some of the most common causes of chimney blockages, but creosote buildup is the most common problem, he said.
In fact, in October 2013, a bird's nest in a chimney in Allentown caused a blockage and led to the buildup of carbon monoxide in the home. Last month, a chimney fire at 317 Glenwood Ave. in Tamaqua, caused by creosote buildup, led to extensive damage and displaced a family of five.
Tamaqua Fire Chief Tom Hartz said that people who own a wood stove, and don't get its stove pipes and chimney cleaned are playing "Russian roulette."
"It's just a matter of time before you'll have a chimney fire if you don't take care of that," Hartz said. "A chimney fire is challenging for firefighters because usually we have to go inside, root around, tear the walls apart to get at the fire."
Hartz also said that every home should have a carbon monoxide detector which plugs into an outlet and also has a battery-operated back up alarm.
Creosote buildup leads the list of chimney blockage causes, and ignition of creosote is the most common cause of a chimney fire, according to the Chimney Safety Institute of America (www.CSIA.org). It can build up in any chimney, whether it's a chimney for a fireplace or a woodstove.
"Don't burn anything but wood in a woodstove, and make sure it's as dry as you can get it," said Tom Spalding, director of Communications and Marketing for the CSIA. "Don't run the risk of a chimney fire if you haven't had your chimney inspected for the season, go without a fire until you can get it inspected, and cleaned if need be."
Depending on conditions, such as the type and aging of wood burned, creosote can build up and block a chimney in a season. In fact, Evans and his helper, Kody Smale, both of Palmerton, had just returned from a job which will require a second visit. On the first visit, they were able to dislodge "baseball and softball size" hunks of creosote. The homeowner told them he'd had the chimney cleaned within the past year.
"If you don't get your chimney cleaned every year, you should at least get it inspected every year," Evans advised. "If it doesn't need to be cleaned because of creosote, it could be that an animal or bird has built a nest, or it could have developed cracks, all of which could cause a chimney fire."
Squirrels' nests are the most common, and usually well-constructed. Typically, the nest must be broken up with steel rods. On a recent job, Evans and Smale filled five five-gallon buckets with pieces of a squirrel nest.
"Probably the best way to prevent squirrels and other things from getting into your chimney is by getting a chimney cap," Evans said. "You can also help maintain a clean chimney by using various products that reduce creosote buildup there's a powder that's a creosote reducer and also a product called Cre-away."
Throughout the coal region, people often want to use the same chimney which for many years, was used for a coal furnace or coal stove. Before doing that, the homeowner should definitely have the chimney inspected, Evans said.
"Coal ash creates sulfuric acid, which, when it gets damp, just eats up a chimney," Evans explained. "Those chimneys may look OK on the outside, but they may be a mess inside."
That's why the annual inspection is important. A homeowner may want to skip it and do the cleaning every other year, but debris or a nest may be inside. And chimney fires, although seemingly contained, can be just as dangerous as any structural fire.
"Just because the fire is in the chimney doesn't mean it can't challenge the structural integrity of the house," said Mark Nalesnik, Carbon County Emergency Management Agency coordinator. "The extreme heat from a chimney fire can cause another part of the house to catch fire and cause other problems too.
"Carbon monoxide buildup in the house is a serious issue that goes along with a chimney fire," he added. "But the homeowner can have debris or soot removed from the chimney, and remove those elements which can cause a chimney fire."
In addition to creosote buildup and blockages caused by animals or birds, homeowners should be aware of the third biggest problem in chimney maintenance the scam artist.
"This is the time of year when they're making what I call the blind call," Evans said. "They'll tell you they've been referred to you by a neighbor who has a chimney, or that you're on their list for the annual checkup."
"I've heard of them going up on a roof with a sledgehammer, so that they can damage the chimney, and I've heard of them claiming that the chimney needs a new liner, with a $3,000 estimate," he continued. "You really have to be aware of who you allow to do work on your property."
According to Pennsylvania law, a properly-licensed chimney cleaning service should be registered with the state as a home improvement contractor, Evans said. Spalding said that although the process of becoming registered as a chimney sweep varies state-to-state, there are steps a homeowner can take to find a qualified person or company.
"We (the CSIA) have 1,400 certified people across the United States, and they can be found on our website," he said. "If you can't find a certified chimney sweep close to you, then at least take steps to get a reputable person in your house to do a chimney inspection."
Spalding said that the CSIA has an affiliate called the National Chimney Sweep Guild (www.NCSG. com), which is the national trade association for chimney professionals. If a chimney sweep is not listed at either of those sites, the homeowner should check references, licensing and insurances just as thoroughly as he'd check and research any contractor who'd be employed on the premises.
"An experienced chimney sweep should be able to provide a list of people as references," Spalding said. "They should also be able to provide a written estimate before work begins and check whether or not there's a charge to get an estimate."
The extra cost to maintain a chimney is worth it, Spalding said.
"Employing a chimney sweep means that the homeowners have minimized the risk," Spalding said. "Then the homeowner can enjoy the cozy warmth in their house."