- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

Donnie Rogan emerges from a fireplace with the long sleeves of his white T-shirt blackened and his face streaked with soot.

Mr. Rogan, a busy chimney sweep, declares the fireplace ready for safe use — just in time for the holidays.

“This is one of the busiest times of the year because everybody has family in and they want to use the fireplace,” he says.

Mr. Rogan has owned and operated Phoenix Chimney & Venting Specialists Inc. for the past six years and has five employees at his Alexandria company.

With Christmas approaching, he constantly is on the move, traveling from home to home. He cleans and inspects five chimneys a day, a job for which he charges $169 in the fall and winter and $139 in the spring and summer.

He is as much a fire-safety advocate as he is a chimney sweep.

As the weather turns cold and homeowners begin to burn wood in fireplaces, they risk starting a fire where they don’t want one, Mr. Rogan says. Creosote, the black or brown substance left behind when wood burns, can turn a chimney into a tinderbox.

Creosote sticks to the lining of a chimney and is highly combustible.

“It is a potential fire hazard. If you’ve got lots of creosote up in the chimney, it’s definitely a problem,” Mr. Rogan says.

Regular cleaning and inspection makes a chimney fire less likely, he says.

In addition, homeowners can help prevent chimney fires by keeping cardboard boxes, wrapping paper, wreaths and Christmas trees out of fireplaces, Mr. Rogan says.

Mr. Rogan — a 34-year-old with short brown hair and an earring dangling from his left earlobe — sits in front of a fireplace at a nearly empty Alexandria home that Steve Cloud and his family are moving into at the very moment the chimney sweep arrives.

Mr. Cloud, directing the moving-day traffic of volunteers and paid help carting boxes and furniture, says he wanted the fireplace ready to go on Christmas, so he called Mr. Rogan.

“Plus, we’re in the mode of renovating as much as we can and cleaning up as much as we can” before moving in, Mr. Cloud says.

And Mr. Cloud is aware of the need to have a chimney cleaned and inspected by a professional. A fireplace at a former house in the District failed to properly ventilate, so he called a chimney sweep, who extracted a frozen pigeon.

Mr. Rogan’s tools are spread out in front of him.

He has been to the roof to take a peek at the chimney cap.

Now he is getting down to the grimy business of cleaning. He starts by removing the damper so he has access to the flue.

His chief tool is a wide wire brush that he attaches to fiberglass poles. Beginning at the bottom, he scrapes and scrapes. The creosote is falling from the chimney’s terra cotta tiles onto a shelf at the base of the flue.

He is sitting in the hearth, grimacing as he manipulates the brush.

“It’s dirty and needs to be swept. But it’s not that bad compared to some of the stuff I see,” he says. “I might open up a flue and see a raccoon staring back at me.”

Or a frozen pigeon.

With the scraping done, he grabs the hose of a vacuum to collect all of the creosote resting on the shelf.

Even though the chimney wasn’t terribly dirty, he did extract a chunk of creosote as big as a thick book.

Mr. Rogan has one more important step before he can proclaim that the flue is fit.

He grabs a blue metal box and undoes a latch to reveal a monitor. It is attached to a camera and will give him a clear view of the chimney’s lining. Mr. Rogan has used the camera since he started his business. Before they used cameras, chimney sweeps engaged largely in speculation to determine a flue’s stability, Mr. Rogan says.

“This is just a much more effective way to do an inspection. It takes the guess work out of it,” he says.

He’s using the $3,500 camera to look for cracked terra cotta tiles. Damaged tiles won’t contain a fire, could heat up the masonry behind them to start a fire, and could let carbon monoxide leak into a home, he says.

Before he began to clean and inspect chimneys, Mr. Rogan was a merchandising manager for the grocer Giant Food, but he grew bored with his job.

He raised eyebrows when he decided to become a chimney sweep.

“I think my family thought I lost my mind,” he says. “I didn’t want to wear a tie anymore.”

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