The other evening, we decided to use our fireplace for the first time. We’ve lived in this place for 16 months now, but between the weather being a lot warmer down here than we’re used to (we moved from Ohio to Texas) and having a lot of other things to do, we never really got around to it.
But we thought it would be fun to light a fire. We’ve been on strict pandemic lockdown since March (we both can work from home and are being cautious), so novelty at home is always a winner. In particular, we thought it might be a fun to light a fire around Thanksgiving.
This wasn’t a spontaneous decision but planned well in advance. My partner ordered some Duraflame logs and a basic set of fire tools, and we waited for them to arrive.
And then — before we had a chance to use our fireplace — our neighbors tried to use their fireplace, and it backfired so badly that the fire department showed up.
This was the second time this has happened with them. It’s turning into a bit of an annual tradition. Every fall, they do something(?) with their fireplace that fills the hallway with the smoke, and then the fire department has to show up. We haven’t had to evacuate the building yet. Instead, the fire department runs an air exchanger to clear out the smoke. It’s loud like an air compressor, scares the cats.
Our guess is that they weren’t opening their flue and all the smoke that should be going up the chimney is going into their apartment instead, which sets off the smoke alarm (we have very sensitive ones in this building; I’ve set it off by searing a pork chop).
We laughed. I made a joke about the Sim City disaster bars being cranked up (there was a tornado in town a few days before this smoke situation, ongoing pandemic, and yeah… the fire department came for the neighbors again)
We Used Our Fireplace Anyway… But Carefully
And obviously we canceled our plans to use our fireplace, right?
See, that’s the part I wanted to talk about. No, we didn’t. A few nights later, we set up our own fire, and it went really well.
But I’ll tell you what we did†: We made sure the flue was open and opened our window slightly to cause a draft that would help move the air appropriately. My partner started the fire with a bit of tinder (packing paper set alight with a match) and noted that the small amount of smoke that came off that was being pulled appropriately up through the chimney and didn’t simply backflow into our apartment. (Putting out a burning piece of paper is significantly easier than putting out a burning log, paraffin or no, so it was a good test.)
We also had a bucket of wet towels, a tall stockpot full of water, and a fire extinguisher at the ready and nearby in case we had to douse the fire.
Did we end up using any of those things? No. But if there had been something systemically wrong with the fireplaces/chimneys in our building, we would have had what we needed to deal with the situation before the fire department needed to show up.
It was a lovely fire. Very warm and relaxing. The cats loved it (and so did we).
Risk-Taking Isn’t Binary
Sometimes I’ll talk to people, and they pose risk-taking in incredibly binary terms: You either take risks and get what you get. Or you take no risk at all — and then you’re living in fear, some will say. But the truth is that you can mitigate your risk by taking reasonable precautions. Not turn it to zero — but maybe reduce it to nearly zero (which is good enough in most scenarios).
And also it needs to be said that you can decide a risk isn’t worth it — and that’s valid too. And it doesn’t mean you’re fearful.
Weirdly, there are some folks who will even say that if you simply take safety precautions that you’re living in fear. But that’s super silly.
You’re not living in fear. You’re being prudent, savvy. When you employ reasonable safety measures, you are nudging the odds in your favor. Why wouldn’t you do that?
I think it’s good to be smart about which risks you take and which ones you don’t (some could argue that’s the key to life, knowing the difference between what’s worth it and what isn’t).
And I think no matter which risks you take, you should be as safe as you can and learn from other people’s mistakes.
† This description is not intended as fire safety instruction. This piece is strictly for entertainment purposes. Do not use this blog to learn how to safely operate a fireplace.