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Mike RobinsonThis time of year, one of my country morning rituals is cleaning last night’s ashes from the fireplace and laying the beginnings of this evening’s fire.

We have what is now considered an old fireplace – it has a brick-lined fire chamber with a small rectangular ash-emptying door in the centre of the fireplace floor. The door is a cast-iron plate that pivots when pushed by the poker, emptying the gathered ashes into a concrete ash chamber beneath.

Theoretically, you clean the chamber out every year by going under the house, opening another little cast-iron door and shovelling out the ashes. Except I haven’t done this chore for 10 years, since the house was built. I keep forgetting. Or I just don’t want to do it.

Anyhow, last Saturday I pushed the ash door with my poker and the damn thing un-pivoted and fell silently below into 10 years’ worth of ashes. A small plume of ash dust rose through the door hole.

“Bugger,” I thought. “This means hot embers will fall below when I kindle tonight’s fire, and possibly create smoke and a second fire in the ash pit.”

I also realized that I’d have to go under our house (it’s built on concrete pilings), and finally shovel out the ash mound and theoretically find the fallen door.

My 95-year-old Mom, a guest this week, said, “Why not just go into town and buy a new door at the building supply place?”

She had a point.

We drove into Powell River after breakfast, taking the short cut up Padgett Road, which passes by Valley Building Supplies. I pulled in and made my way to their well-stocked fireplace department. I was welcomed and my sad story was told.

It turns out they don’t stock ash doors any more because fireplace technology has moved on. Today, it’s all about inserts and fans and efficiency. Even so, the salesman checked his inventory online but no luck. He called the manager for a second opinion. I retold my tale of woe and a smile broke out on his face.

“You won’t believe this, but one of our installers is out on a job right now and he’s inserting a new system into an old fireplace like yours – it might have a fire door just like what you’re looking for. I’ll call him and check.”

Sure enough, an immediate call revealed that there was a door in the fireplace floor and he’d bring it up to the building supplies store at the end of the day. Mission accomplished.

I went back to my car to tell the story to Mom.

She was pleased to have had the winning idea and the rest of our town trip was a celebration. We had lunch at Culaccino, a new “modern Italian” restaurant, and lingered in Artique, the local arts co-operative. There Mom bought a small oil painting from the artist, Maggie Poole. We headed home with our groceries for the week and a sense of achievement.

Back home, I was suddenly struck with the idea that my 10 years of fireplace ash would work wonders in the vegetable garden. And so I spent a couple of hours that afternoon under the house with my wheelbarrow and shovel.

I wore a painter’s mask because the light grey ash was airborne the second I dumped my shovel in the barrow.

There was quite a pile of ash to remove. Three loads were wheeled up the gravel road to the garden compost pile before I finished the job.

No cast iron fire door appeared in any of the shovel loads – until the last one. I heard a clink as metal hit metal. As I withdrew the shovel from the ash pit, there it was, intact and ready to reinsert.

I went upstairs holding the little door to great acclaim from my family.

I slotted it in the fireplace floor just as the phone rang. It was the salesman at Valley telling me he had the replacement in his hands, and if I wished I could drop by his house on Sunday for coffee and pick it up!

Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery.

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