Scene: Valentine's Eve. I'm listening to the radio, riding home in rush hour traffic. Traffic is crawling along at 20 MPH. The temperature outside is 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and there isn't much wind at all.
(Cell phone rings)
I search my coat pockets looking for cell phone.
(Cell phone rings again)
I finally find the phone on the floor on the passenger side of the car.
Lisa: Which way does the flue open in the fireplace?
I'm thinking it's sweet that Lisa wants to have a fire going in the fireplace for me when I get home.
Me: Pull the handle from the upper left down to the right.
Lisa: (Urgently) There's smoke coming into the house! The fire alarms are going to go off soon!
Me: You've got to get the flue open. Use the log tongs and grab the handle and pull it down.
Lisa: (cough) The smoke isn't going up the chimney! (cough) Bandit, get away from there!
Me: The damper handle should swing freely. Tap it with the tongs or poker, and if it isn't swinging freely, it needs to be opened. If it is swinging freely then the smoke will be going up the chimney.
Lisa: (cough) It is open. (cough, cough) The house is filling with smoke! (cough, cough) I know Bandit, I’m trying.
Me: If you can't get the flue open you'll have to put the fire out.
Lisa: You said the handle should swing freely, right?
Me: Yes, if it's open.
Lisa: It is swinging freely; the smoke is still coming into the house.
Me: You either need to get that fire put out, or you need to call the fire department right now.
Lisa: (cough, cough)
Me: Get some water from the sink and pour it on the logs. You've got to either get the fire put out or call the fire department!
Lisa: (cough) Bandit, get out of here.
Several seconds pass.
Lisa: (a distant sounding shout) Can you hear me?
Me: Hello? Is the fire out?
Lisa: I didn't know where I set the phone down. I couldn't find it.
I realize I must be on speakerphone.
Me: Is the fire out?
Lisa: The smoke is still coming into the house.
Me: I told you, you need to get some water and put it out.
Lisa: I did, but some pieces of wood are still smoldering a bit.
Me: No, you need to soak all the wood. You need to get that smoldering out. There shouldn't be any more smoke at all.
Lisa gets the wood completely put out and comments on how the inside of the fireplace is like a swamp now. Lisa opens several windows in the area around the fireplace to try and get the smoke out of the house. I suggest turning on the exhaust fans in all the bathrooms to try and suck some of the smoke out of the house. Since the bedroom door was closed the entire time, there’s no smoke in there. Lisa heads there to keep warmer while waiting for the smoke to dissipate. She gets Bandit to come with her.
Forty minutes later when I get home, there’s no visible smoke, but the whole house sure smells of smoke. I close the windows near the fireplace, and open the windows that are farthest from the fireplace. I turn off the exhaust fans in the bathrooms. I remove the wood from the fireplace and verify that Lisa did have the flue open. I light the gas burner in the fireplace and crank the flame all the way up. The airflow seems to be going up the flue. I'm hoping that fresh air will be pulled in through the open windows and flow through the whole house towards the fireplace where it will vent up the chimney. I notice that the house is quickly cooling off, and figure this is a good sign that fresh air is coming in. I let the fireplace run like this for about 15 or 20 minutes checking regularly that the fireplace exhaust is not coming into the room. Then I close all the windows, and put some fresh dry pieces of wood on the fire. Before long there is a very hot roaring fire in the fireplace and the room begins to warm.
After talking to Lisa I've discovered that she didn't forget to open the flue like I originally thought. She opened it first, and noticed there seemed to be a bit of a draft coming from the fireplace. Having not lit many fires in the past, she didn't realize this was unusual. The draft was strong enough to blow out the match when she first tried to light the gas. Then when she got the gas lit, the flames weren't vertical, but rather were pointing into the room. This seemed wrong to her, but before she could get the gas turned back off, some of the loose bark on the wood caught and started smoking. The smoke immediately started coming into the room instead of going up the chimney.
My best guess is that the chimney walls were bitter cold and the chimney was filled with cold air. Since cold air is heavier than warmer air it came pouring into the room, much like a column of water with an open valve at the bottom, when she opened the damper. Fresh cold air was pulled into the chimney from the top and this continued the flow as she tried to get the fire started. By the time I got home things had probably evened out in the room. The draft from the chimney was gone. Running the gas fire for a bit heated up the fireplace and the chimney walls enough to create the proper updraft.
I hope this experience doesn't discourage Lisa from trying to start a fire in the future. It is nice to come home to a roaring fire after a long drive on a frigid night. We've agreed that it's probably a good idea to hold off on putting wood into the fire until the gas flame is lit and looks like it’s vertical. I've also suggested waiting 10 minutes or so before lighting the gas flame if there is a noticeable draft from the chimney when opening the damper.