Making a Good Fire (Or, how I traded my commuting carbon credits for home fire credits)

My earliest recollections are of my mother cooking on a coal stove. My job as a small boy was to carry out the ashes in a pail and dump them on the ash heap. We got our first TV in 1949 and I recall watching the NYC Thanksgiving Parade while a fire was burning in the fireplace. The stove and the wood-burning fireplace were my earliest exposures to combustion. Fortunately, I was never overly attracted to fire and matches, as apparently some children become.

The types of fire I initiate as an adult are the barbecue and the wood fire. So nothing much has changed in all those years, except the coal moved outside. Of course, the following is all politically incorrect and non-green. But I am old, with one foot in a prior generation and technology. Since my use of fire is for temporary ambience and an occasional tasty filet, I am going to allow myself the luxury. And I do observe local burn bans during winter periods of air stagnation.

For the barbecue, I use a metal chimney as Barry showed me. Take a sheet of newspaper, fold it in half diagonally, then roll it up by folding over and over about a 3″ width. Then roll it lengthwise around your hand and stick it in the underside of the chimney, unrolling until it expands fully to the sides. Do this three times, placing each inside the previous. That should loosely fill the starter combustion chamber. Some say to spray the paper with shortening first for a longer burn, but that does not seem necessary. Turn the chimney rightside-up and fill half full of charcoal briquets. Then light the paper. I lift the chimney to eye level and light the paper from underneath with a propane lighter. But matches through the side holes works also. The chimney smokes profusely for 5 minutes (ugh – embarrassing), and by 20 minutes the red hot coals can be dumped out into the kettle and the grilling can begin.

For the fireplace wood fire, I place some starter kindling on the grate, then place two logs a few inches apart, then another resting on top. Three big logs is all it takes to make a good fire. I use what is available locally, orange, oak, and eucalyptus in the southwest, maple and alder in the northwest. The fire lasts approximately a half hour per log.

Although a little crumpled newspaper under the grate will get the kindling started, for convenience I crank on the gas starter valve and light the fire. It works best to leave the gas on high for five minutes or so to thoroughly heat the air column in the chimney and to ensure a hot enough fire for good continuous drafting. I avoid starting a fire inside during periods of high wind velocities. Downdrafts will heap misery on one’s life; trust me.

For burns exceeding two hours, additional logs can be added at ~30 minute intervals. I find a fire needs tending every half hour or oftener to ensure complete combustion. Moving the position of the logs while keeping them close together facilitates even burning. If one log looks like it will last longer, I lay it orthogonally on top of the other two to get it to burn fastest in the middle. Then, when it breaks apart, the two halves can be placed next to each other to ensure they burn completely. I am somewhat of a stickler; no fire is a success if non-combusted material remains in the fireplace.

There are different philosophies on fire starting and wood stacking. Some people are quite absorbed in the finer practices of firewood stacking. I am mostly a whatever works kind of guy, but I love to learn new tricks. Stacking is all about drying the wood. Some argue for bark up, others for bark down. I say any old which way, as long as there is space around the logs. Since wood stacks can attract termites and critters, stacking away from the house is advisable.

While I have always started fires from underneath with kindling on the bottom (a practical imperative using gas starters), others advocate for an upside down fire with kindling on the top. I will try that next time, if there is a next time. Now, for the first time in forty years, I live in a house with a gas log in the fireplace and a gas BBQ on the deck. I am learning to use my imagination to fill in all the ambience blanks. Perhaps this will never become satisfactory and I may work a deal to remove the gas log and make real fires in it once more. And when cooking for myself (D doesn’t like meat with a smokey flavor), I still have my starter chimney, charcoal, and portable hibachi grill.

A good fire takes the chill out of any room, connects with our deep fascination and appreciation of the role of fire in our history, is aesthetic by sight, smell, and sound, and particularly smells good outside the house, the beckoning smell of a warm hearth inside. In our later years, when family scatters and the warmth of its closeness slowly dissipates, the warmth of a good fire allows our emotions to return to the feeling of that prior closeness.

Welcome in.

Update: Our latest house has no gas. I have returned to wood fires. And I now eschew the gas BBQ for charcoal fires for fatty meats. I will end where I began, cradled in the ambience of fire.


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