Clark County has a lot of dirty chimneys.
There were 177 chimney fires throughout the county from January 2017 through April 2018, according to the Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office. In Vancouver, between 2015 and 2018, there were 50 chimney fires.
Local chimney sweeps say many people don’t realize that chimney cleaning is something they should do annually to prevent fires.
“Chimney fires haven’t gone away,” said Dan Dilley, owner of “A” Your Town Chimney in Washougal.
Despite the apparent lack of knowledge, there’s enough demand for chimney sweeping that keeps Dilley busy even through the summer. Requests increase once there’s even an inkling of autumn weather. People quickly yearn for fall sweaters and that crackling sound akin to a lullaby.
Then, Dilley sees the conspicuously placed signs along Washougal River Road advertising cheap sweeps. After 30 years of getting dirty cleaning out the gunk called creosote from people’s chimneys, he knows better.
Permitted wood stoves and inserts in Clark County:
• Free-standing wood stoves and inserts with a mechanical permit, 7,858.
• Free-standing wood stoves and inserts with a new home/single-family permit, 4,144.
• Clark County doesn’t track new buildings that include a brick fireplace.
“A lot of guys get a pole and a brush and a beat-up truck and call themselves a chimney sweep and charge half of what I do,” he said, his hands dirty after completing a job in Camas. “In a year or two, they’re not around.”
Dilley’s business, located on E Street, isn’t a flash in the pan, though. He said he’s built up a loyal customer base since starting in 1996. He previously worked on the Alaska pipeline and operated a power-washing service in Florida. Dilley fell into chimney sweeping after a now-former girlfriend urged him to move with her to Buffalo, N.Y.
Staunchly opposed to working for anyone other than himself, he argued with her about what he would do for work if they moved.
“She wanted to go back to Buffalo, where she was from,” Dilley said. “And I asked her what I was going to do to be self-employed. She pointed to a picture on the wall of a wood stove and said, ‘You can be a chimney sweep.’ ”
After Dilley’s son went off to college, the Washougal native wanted to return to the Pacific Northwest.
When Dilley started his Washougal business, he put the “A” in the name so he was first in the phone book when someone looked up chimney sweeping. “When it mattered” that is, he and his wife, Marsha, joked at the shop, alluding to the dwindling use of a physical phone book.
Changing technology is something that Dilley has to keep up with in his line of work.
It’s a centuries-old profession — one that propelled some of the earliest labor laws related to children climbing up into flues, and dying as a result, in the late 1700s and 1800s. But although, at its core, it has remained the same over time, fireplace and wood stove technology have evolved.
“They’re actually coming out with computers in your gas fireplaces that turns them on and lights the pilot light,” Dilley said, adding that he takes classes and attends seminars annually to learn how to “work on new stuff.”
Dilley is certified through the Oregon Chimney Sweeps Association, which is a member of the National Chimney Sweeping Association. The organizations have strict standards on how chimney sweeps should operate, and hold annual gatherings. There are approximately 130 active members in the Oregon association, making up about 50 chimney-sweeping businesses located throughout the Pacific Northwest, according to Louis Lee, the association’s president.
“A” Your Town Chimney
Lee runs Portland Fireplace and Chimney, as well as Vanport Fireplace and Chimney, 7636 MacArthur Blvd., in Vancouver.
The Clark County native has encountered many negligent homeowners and landlords when it comes to fireplace care.
“Sometimes, they just blow me off,” Lee said, referring to rental property landlords. “They don’t want to spend the money to fix it, because it’s a lot of detailed work to fix something that burns wood or gas.”
But not doing the maintenance work leads to serious safety issues, such as gaps between bricks so large that fire licks the wooden mantle on the other side.
Since January 2012, the Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office has investigated approximately 31 structure fires in rural, unincorporated Clark County alone, where the cause involved wood stoves, fire places and pellet stoves.
Dilley said along with the seasonal influx of work, comes people who haven’t had a sweep in years, if ever, which poses problems for him.
“Unfortunately, people who haven’t had it done and just decide to, sometimes, are very disappointed when you get there and say, ‘You’re so unsafe. I can’t do anything with it.’ They go, ‘Well, I’ve been using it for 30 years.’ ‘You’ve been darn lucky for 30 years.’ ”
The wood stove he was tending to in Camas is used regularly; a massive wood pile takes up a portion of the backyard. Dilley removed the creosote and partially filled a brown bag.
For those who have decidedly uncleanable chimneys, Dilley encourages them to look at bringing it up to code and possibly getting something new — which can range from $5,000 to $6,000 for a completely new install, he said.
Other industry issues that Dilley has to keep an eye on are health concerns from smoke. A report by the state Department of Ecology, called “How Wood Smoke Harms Your Health,” updated in 2012, details the health effects of smoke in homes that come from burning wood, which produces fine particles that are harmful when breathed in.
To combat this issue, stoves and fireplaces fitted with catalytic combustors, a part that helps the smoke burn cleaner, have been introduced to the market.
“The design of the stove has gotten much more efficient,” Dilley said, adding that he’s concerned the push for cleaner stoves might be going too far. He’ll still have to clean the chimneys — just less frequently.
At 62, he’s been considering retirement, but he thinks he would be bored.
Dilley is not too concerned about a lack of customers this season, he said, but still urges people to get their stoves and fireplaces cleaned from someone who knows what they’re doing.
“I’d mainly just stress that they get them cleaned. People just ignore that part of it,” he said. “And if they do get them cleaned, hopefully, they get somebody who’s certified.”