Chimney sweep John Briscoe once discovered a cannonball inside a chimney.
“And I’ve found all sorts of wildlife, just about anything you can think of, most of it dead,” said Briscoe, co-owner with his wife, Ann, of Black Goose Chimney Sweep in Thaxton.
James Cassell, owner of Franklin County-based The Chimney Sweep, once rousted five living raccoons.
“They were mad,” Cassell said.
Briscoe has found footballs, basketballs, assorted toys, engine parts, bottles, cans and newspapers dating to the early 20th century.
He remains a tad puzzled about the cannonball. But he said he does not think it shot out of a cannon and just happened to land inside the chimney.
“Sometimes people will drop stuff down their chimney to see whether it will go all the way through,” Briscoe said.
When the weather turns cold, chimney sweeps get busy. And it seems regional companies in the trade are a little busier this year than usual – inspecting, cleaning and repairing chimneys, installing or replacing flue liners and wood stoves and more.
Separately, Briscoe, Cassell and Doug Shelburne, owner of Doug’s Chimney Sweep in Bedford County, each reported a heating trend they’ve observed this fall.
“We’re removing a lot of gas logs,” Shelburne said. “People are going back to burning wood.”
Briscoe offered a similar observation.
“I’ve had more people in the last couple of years who have asked to remove gas logs and have converted to either a fireplace or a wood stove,” he said.
Shelburne said he has been a chimney sweep for 25 years.
“This is the busiest year I’ve seen since 1999, when people were worried about losing power because of Y2K,” Shelburne said, referencing the transition from 1999 to 2000, when fears of related technological glitches created a huge stir.
The men attributed the trend back toward wood burning to numerous factors, including the rising cost of electricity during tough economic times, the unpredictable price of propane, the odor associated with some ventless gas logs and storms that have left people without power for prolonged periods.
They cited the June 29 derecho storm as one example and noted that its destructive force also left a lot of downed timber for firewood. And Briscoe said there seems to be an increase internationally in natural disasters, events some observers link to climate change.
Roanoke Fire-EMS spokeswoman Tiffany Bradbury said some people have turned to alternative heating sources because of the high costs of home heating fuels and utilities. Fireplaces, wood stoves and space heaters are often linked to residential fires, she said, and improperly installed or poorly vented heat sources can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.
The Roanoke Fire-EMS department’s winter safety tips include a recommendation to have chimneys inspected annually and cleaned when necessary. A section about chimney safety on the department’s website reports that “heating fires are often due to creosote buildup in chimneys and stovepipes” and notes that chimney fires “can burn explosively” or slowly, with the latter often being less visible but still potentially catastrophic.
Mark Silverstein is general manager of Dixie Products, a Roanoke-based retailer and wholesaler of wood stoves, fireplaces, gas and electric logs, shop heaters and more.
Silverstein said Dixie Products has not witnessed the trend reported by the chimney sweeps.
“We’ve had a variety of both gas and wood sales,” he said. “Actually, our wood sales are not as strong as in previous years.”
He said some people who already own a wood stove might be putting it back into service.
Meanwhile, Silverstein emphasized the importance of chimney inspections.
“It’s an absolute,” he said. “If you don’t have working knowledge about your chimney, you need to have it inspected by a qualified inspector. It is a prudent and wise thing to do.”
Black Goose Chimney Sweep is nationally certified through the Chimney Safety Institute of America. Shelburne said he let his CSIA certification lapse because of the related expense and headaches for a small operation. Cassell’s company is not certified but has been in business since 1976.
Shelburne said he has high expectations of employees because their work is serious business.
“I’m a hard guy to work for,” he said. “I’m a real perfectionist. This is somebody’s life.”
He said his grandfather taught him to shoot straight with customers.
“I’ll tell them, ‘You’ve got a serious problem and I don’t want to read about you in the papers,’ ” Shelburne said. “The goal is to save lives. That’s really how I got into this years ago.”
Silverstein said he is most familiar with Shelburne’s work.
“If he tells you that you need something, you need it,” he said. “He really knows his stuff.”
Silverstein said he has heard nothing but good reports about Black Goose. He said he is less familiar with Cassell’s company but noted that the chimney sweeps who are still working after a long time tend to be competent, responsible and solvent because of repeat business. The charlatans probably don’t last long, he said.
“I think the economy has weeded those guys out,” Silverstein said. “The good companies stuck around. The best people are busy.”
Cassell said there are people who claim to be sweeps who have little experience.
“One of the things I don’t like is some of these chimney sweeps who don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.
Briscoe said customers should ask companies whether they are fully insured and have a contractor’s license.
He said he started in the business in 1989 after buying a house in Roanoke that was built in 1917.
“I didn’t know whether the fireplace was usable,” he said. “Nobody could tell me anything and I thought there were probably other people like me out there.
“So, I started reading and researching and the more I read the more interested I became,” he said.
There was one problem.
“I’m afraid of heights,” Briscoe said. “The first time I stepped from a ladder onto a roof I froze. It took me about three years to get used to it.”
On Dec. 3, Briscoe watched as Black Goose employee Ryan Carter climbed a ladder to reach the top of a chimney at the circa-1939 home of Ed and Carol Burroughs off Poor Mountain Road. Carter wielded a brush to clean the topmost section of the chimney, which served a fireplace.
Briscoe said the comparatively soft brush was appropriate for an unlined chimney because it was less likely to dislodge mortar or cause other damage. Briscoe’s son, Ben, was also on site.
The men covered a rug and furniture with heavy drop cloths to protect them from soot and debris loosed from the chimney. Briscoe used threaded extensions to run a closed-circuit TV camera up the chimney to check for damage. He found a few places where parging – a coating of plaster or mortar – was missing. But he discovered no problems with the brick.
Briscoe said he would recommend that the Burroughs line the chimney before using the fireplace again. He said he would likely suggest a stainless steel liner that would be worked down the chimney from the top in two sections. And he said he would recommend installing a damper.
Carol Burroughs said the couple had not used the fireplace for some time.
“We stopped because we were concerned about having a chimney fire,” she said. In addition, she said, the fireplace’s draw pulled cold air across a thermostat, which kept the furnace running.
The approach of the holiday season stirred in Carol a yearning for a cozy but safe fire in the fireplace.
“I said, ‘That’s what I want for Christmas.'”