Larry Ivey goes to work in a top hat, tails and red knit scarf. He holds a bristly black brush, and dark soot fills the creases of his large, wrinkled hands.
Ivey, a chimney sweep based in Valrico, looks like he came straight from the pages of a Charles Dickens novel.
Ivey, 68, has cleaned chimneys for the past 29 years, ever since a magazine ad piqued his interest and he decided to start Joy Chimney Sweep Service.
In the summer, Ivey keeps busy by clearing dryer vents, but once the temperature drops, he gets called to clean up to 10 chimneys a day. One recent morning, he went to Danny and Tracy Blevins' Bloomingdale house.
Ivey showed up in full attire, but to get down to business, he shed the accessories and donned a black hoodie.
The dapper costume originated in 19th-century England, where chimney sweeps "were so dirty, no one wanted anything to do with them," he said. To appear important, they bought the articles from funeral parlors.
Ivey's assistant, his brother-in-law David Creel, set up tools and wheeled in a large red, tin can, which sucked up soot through a plastic tube.
Ivey crouched halfway in the fireplace and knocked down soot with a paintbrush as the whirring machine inhaled the dust.
He pushed the nylon brush up the chimney, adding attachable rods as it got higher. A pile of soot gathered in the fireplace, and Ivey's short salt-and-pepper hair looked more peppery than when he began. In 15 minutes, he was done.
He vacuumed his leg and arm and declared, "That's one clean fireplace."
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Ivey named his business Joy Chimney Sweep Service because, he said, his "joy" comes from God.
"We're a Christian family, and that's the joy of the Lord," he said. "I feel like he opened my eyes to the niche."
It's a small niche, and at first Ivey was unsure that cleaning chimneys in Florida was a good idea. He started looking up, and that's when he noticed all the chimneys. He decided to give it a try.
In 1981, he ordered a chimney sweeping manual from the company that ran the magazine ads. He cleaned a few chimneys for free to practice.
Since then, he has learned a lot that wasn't in that manual — like how to deal with animals that get trapped in chimneys. He has seen squirrels, ducks, raccoons, birds, bats and, one time, a snake.
"It had dropped in from a tree overhead trying to get birds," he said.
One day, he went to check out a haunted chimney and instead found a couple of cooing turtle doves.
He also has learned that people often forget the basics. He got a call one night after a man who was trying to have a romantic dinner with his girlfriend ran into trouble when he lit a fire in his fireplace. Smoke poured into the room.
When Ivey arrived, he simply opened the damper. "You never know what you're going to run into," he said.
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Ivey said he considers his job more of a calling. He hopes to save people's homes — and possibly their lives — through his work.
A buildup of creosote, the flammable tar deposited from smoke that adheres to the chimney's walls, can cause fires.
Ivey has been called after a few chimney fires. By the time he arrives, the firefighters have already extinguished the flames by sticking a hose down the chimney. That puts out the fire but creates a huge mess, he said.
And the sound is frightening. Homeowners tell him the fire roars like a freight train coming through the house.
Between 2003 and 2005, there was an average of 25,000 residential fires that started in fireplaces or chimneys each year, according to statistics released by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2008. An average of 30 people each year died from those fires, and 90 more were injured.
There's also a danger of carbon monoxide poisoning if chimneys are clogged, according to the Chimney Safety Institute of America.
Problems are less frequent in the Tampa Bay area because homeowners use their fireplaces less, said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue spokesman Ray Yeakley. But routine maintenance is important because chimney fires do happen here, he said.
"You do routine maintenance on your car, in your house, on your appliances," Yeakley said. "You want to do the same thing here."
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Ivey may be 68, but that doesn't stop him from getting up on homeowners' roofs, if necessary.
He often climbs high to fix chimney caps and reach dryer vents.
"This guy climbs around like he's a 3-year-old or something," Creel said. "He blows me away."
Ivey said he plans to keep cleaning chimneys as long as his body allows him. Then he'll probably pass his business to his son, Keith, who already picks up jobs on the weekends.
Then what will he do?
"Probably go fishing," he said. "I love to fish."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.