Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

I’ve now had my first fire in the woodstove, which means the Lincoln Volunteer Fire Company is on high alert. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. They’re only on medium alert — sort of like the old Homeland Security color-coded warning system, which was set always at orange. Orange, you will recall, meant, “We have no credible threat, but we are going to cover our butts and allow the TSA screeners to pat down yours.” In other words, the firefighters have seen smoke from my chimney, and know from experience that where’s there smoke, there’s fire … though, they hope, not one actually in my chimney.

I must confess, I think I’ve gotten a bad rap when it comes to chimney fires. I may be jinxing myself, but I have not had one since January 1995. Immediately after that, we had the switchbacks that marked our old MetalBestos chimney removed, and now it rises straight through the house like a traditional one. This prevents creosote from building up inside it like the fat in Joey Chestnut’s arteries.

Who, you ask, is Joey Chestnut? Last month he won the Oktoberfest Zinzinnati World Bratwurst-Eating Championship. He scarfed down an impressive 35 brats in 10 minutes. Now, I have no idea if eating three and a half dozen bratwursts has, in fact, had any effect on Joey Chestnut’s cholesterol. For all I know, his arteries are as clear as a spanking new garden hose. But you get my point. No good comes from a switchback chimney.

I love the start of the woodstove season. We all know there is something deeply comforting about a small blaze in a woodstove or fireplace. Years ago, Doug Mack, co-owner and chef at Mary’s at Baldwin Creek, a Bristol bed and breakfast and restaurant, put it this way when we were chatting: “There’s a decided homeyness that comes with crisp autumn air, the changing leaves, and a fire in the fireplace. It’s like coming home.”

Indeed. But fire is always dangerous, which is why we don’t play with it, jump out of frying pans into it, or throw gasoline on it. Today is the first day of Fire Prevention Week, which means now is as good a time as any to take a look around your home and see if you have done all that you can to keep your family safe.

According to Bob Patterson, deputy director of the Vermont Division of Fire Safety, “The most important thing you can do is be sure that you having working smoke detectors.” He shared with me a number of troubling statistics, but among the most disturbing was this: Roughly 80 percent of all house fires his division has investigated did not have smoke detectors or the smoke detectors did not work. In addition, almost every single fire he has examined that resulted in a fatality caught the victim off-guard because of a non-existent or non-functioning smoke detector. “A fire can be very quiet until it’s too late and suddenly you’re in harm’s way,” he said.

So, check your smoke alarm batteries and be sure the device is working.

Patterson also said that house fires are more common than we like to believe. In 2010 in Vermont, there were 1,956 structural fires — or more than five a day.

Finally, he said to be careful not to leave laptops overheating on couches or beds; to be attentive in the kitchen, where a great many house fires begin; and to be careful with candles, heating appliances and, yes, woodstoves. Get that chimney cleaned. Don’t let it clog like the arteries of contestants in bratwurst-eating competitions.

I have enormous respect for Vermont’s firefighters. One of the ways we can make their jobs easier and safer is by showing a little common sense — especially now that the woodstove and space heater season has arrived. Today, the start of Fire Prevention Week, is as good a time as any to start.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on October 9, 2011. Chris’s new novel, “The Night Strangers,” was just published.

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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