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By Chris McGuinness - Killeen Daily Herald

When most people think of chimney sweeps, the iconic image of Dick Van Dyke’s soot-covered character from Disney’s “Mary Poppins” is the first thing that comes to mind.

Professional chimney sweep Doug Ables, owner of Ables Top Hat Chimney Sweeps in Copperas Cove, contributes to the comparison by showing up to jobs in a top hat and tuxedo T-shirt.

His business is a busy one, especially during the winter months when many residents use their fireplaces as a way to reduce heating costs.

“We have a fireplace; we use it because it’s cheaper,” said Autumn Whipple, a stay-at-home mother who lives in Killeen. “It really keeps things warm in the winter, and you don’t have to use your heater as much.”

Ables has operated his business ­— which cleans fireplaces, chimneys and wood stoves — since 1980. Some of the tools of the trade, like his chimney brush, haven’t changed much since the early days of chimney sweeping. Others, like the vacuum he uses to remove soot and debris, make the modern day job a little easier.

“Some things about the job changed from the old days in England,” he said. “But it’s still dirty, grimy work.”

For residents like Whipple who use their fireplaces regularly, Ables’ services aren’t just convenient, but necessary to keep homes and families safe.

“About half of my job is education,” said Ables. “We come in and inspect (the fireplaces) and we don’t leave until everything is checked thoroughly.”

The goal, he said, is to prevent house fires from starting due to improper cleaning, maintenance or operation of wood burning heat sources.

As homeowners burn wood, the smoke contains heated particles which cling to the chimney, creating a highly flammable substance called creosote. If the creosote is allowed to build up, it can become a deadly fire hazard to the home and those living inside.

Robert Martin, Copperas Cove’s fire chief, said the results of house fires are particularly devastating, especially those that occur as the result of chimney fires.

“The majority of (chimney) fires take place between the ceiling and roof, in attic areas,” said Martin. “It can sit there and burn for a period of time unnoticed. We’ve had cases where neighbors see the smoke, and by that time it’s too late.”

Martin said the best way to avoid such fires is to keep fireplaces and wood stoves clean. He said the department recommends an annual cleaning.

“Many fires also start because somebody forgets to open the flue, which fills the house with smoke,” said Martin. “We also tell folks to make sure they have a screen or glass doors on their fireplace.”

Martin cautioned against overloading fireplaces with wood, or burning waste materials, which could give off toxic fumes.

“During the holidays, some people try to burn wrapping paper or Christmas trees in their fireplaces, and that can cause the fire to flare up and catch the creosote,” said Ables. “Then you have a serious house fire on your hands.”

House fires, no matter what the cause, have taken a heavy toll in both lives and property in the United States.

According to data from the U.S. Fire Administration, there were more than 362,000 residential fires throughout the nation in 2010. Those fires resulted in approximately 2,555 deaths, 13,275 injuries and more than $6.6 million in property damage.

Contact Chris McGuinness at chrism@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7568.

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