Terry and Valerie Lupton knew without question the cracked chimney in their rented Atwater Village home would need substantial repair work after the Jan. 17 earthquake ripped through Southern California.
But what they didn't expect was the subsequent thousands of dollars in additional damage and danger caused when an incompetent handyman knocked their chimney stack onto their front porch overhang, which collapsed in a splintered heap of wood, tar paper and bricks seconds before Terry Lupton returned home from a walk with his two young sons.
"He's chipping away at the chimney from the roof line . . . and it goes down at a side angle and crashes through my porch," an incredulous Lupton said. "I'm thinking this guy's a joker and he doesn't know how to do things."
Lupton said the self-professed handyman got on his roof after telling Lupton the landlord gave him approval to repair the chimney. In fact, the surprised landlord agreed to no such deal, and the wayward handyman has since disappeared.
"You're so vulnerable and you'd think a spirit of honesty would run through all of this," said Lupton of the post-quake days. "That is the really sad part."
Throughout the Southland, one of the great earthquake equalizers are broken and damaged chimneys. In Los Angeles alone, building and safety officials estimated that 15,000 homes, from modest dwellings to lavish mansions, suffered substantial chimney and fireplace damage in the 6.6 temblor.
"Most of the damage has occurred from the roof line up," said Ron Aarons, an architect and owner of Calabasas-based Aarons & Associates, who has spent most of his post-earthquake days inspecting chimneys. "A chimney is like a flagpole and is whipped back and forth at a different rate than the house. The damage has been phenomenal."
Even some reinforced brick fireplaces that withstood the quake with no breakage themselves caused damage to the less sturdy wood walls to which they were attached, Aarons said.
And as aftershocks continue to rumble through the earth, many people feel desperate to hire whoever is available to repair damage or remove these potentially unstable stacks of bricks sitting above their roofs.
Experts in the field, however, are warning residents to move cautiously when replacing or repairing their fireplaces. A poorly repaired or improperly installed fireplace could wind up costing lives.
"It's probably the most dangerous thing you'll put in a house," said Al Wiras, a 25-year veteran of the fireplace business and owner of California Fireplaces in Chatsworth. "You got to know what you're doing. If it's not put together right, fire could come up through the seams and start a (house) fire. People think they're saving money, but what's a good price when a guy goes to sleep at night and might not get up in the morning?"
Gary Abrams, a general contractor who runs the Home Doctor company in Los Angeles and Ventura counties and who specializes in general home repair and seismic safety, agreed. "The list of things that can go wrong will curl your hair," he said.
Here's some advice for homeowners or renters:
Safety should be the first concern of any homeowner or occupant who lives in a house with a fireplace. And those familiar with fireplaces and their potential hazards urge residents to hold off using them until they're thoroughly inspected for damage inside and out, preferably by a licensed contractor or a mason familiar with chimneys.
"I'm advising everybody, if there's any damage at all, not to use them," said Kagel Canyon mason Coddy Nuckols. "If there's any cracking, combustible materials can get through those cracks."
"In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, fires were initiated from cooking fires in damaged fireplaces," said Capt. Larry Jarvis of the L.A. City Fire Department Disaster Preparedness Center in Sherman Oaks. "And not only do you have the problem of fire spread, but if you use your fireplace and there's damage at any point on the chimney structure itself, it could leak toxic fumes in your house."
Those fumes can even enter the home through cracks inside the flue that aren't visible and require an expert to spot them. Wiras gets the close-up view with a small video camera that he lowers into the flue on a line. "I let it down, turn it around in the flue, and sometimes you'll be surprised what you see in there," he said.
"Everyone wants to be a fireplace man right now," Wiras said. " . . . There are thousands of them out there who don't know what they're doing."
Before hiring anyone to inspect or repair your fireplace, make sure they're licensed and insured. And it's usually best to seek a referral. If friends or family are unable to give you names, Abrams suggests calling a fireplace dealer for the names of at least three workers they deal with regularly.
Then, when you call, tell them who referred you. "You have more clout with whomever you're calling if you get their name from someone they deal with," he said.