Even as autumn weather cools, smoke rising from a simple old fashioned brick chimney is a rare sight nowadays. A smoking stovepipe is rarer. Modern building codes forbid the installation of new fireplaces or wood stoves within most municipalities here. Modern air quality ordinances severely limit the use of existing fireplaces and wood burning stoves.
Furthermore, existing fireplaces and wood stoves are neither as popular nor as common as they had been. After an earthquake, a faulty chimney is likely to justify removal rather than repair. An unused wood stove wastes too much space. Old orchards that generated inexpensive firewood as they relinquished their space to urban development are extinct.
There are a few advantages to these modern trends though. Modern homes consume so much less energy for heating than older homes because of efficient insulation. Insulation of older homes retains heat that fireplaces generate, so that less wood is needed. Almost every surviving chimney has a spark arrestor. Modern roof materials are noncombustible.
Nonetheless, vegetation that gets too near to a chimney that is in use can be hazardous. Even if clearance was adequate last winter, trees, vines and large shrubbery grew since then. It does not take long for such vegetation to overwhelm a chimney, or encroach a bit more than it should. It does not take too much vegetation to be hazardously combustible.
Clinging vines like English ivy and Boston ivy sometimes climb up and then over the top of a chimney. Although not especially combustible, they will burn directly over a fireplace or wood stove. Just like gutters do, vines can accumulate leaves that fall from deciduous trees to become more combustible. Birds or rodents can build combustible nests in them.
Evergreen trees and big shrubbery are similarly combustible over a chimney. Deciduous trees are generally not as hazardous. Conversely, cypress, pine, cedar, eucalyptus, large junipers, and ungroomed palms are very combustible. Eucalyptus foliage will burn while fresh, if it gets hot enough. The other trees tend to accumulate very combustible detritus.
Fireplaces and wood stoves simply are not as common as they were only a few decades ago. Because of modern building codes, most that get damaged by earthquakes get removed or replaced by pellet stoves. The orchards that once provided so much inexpensive firewood while they were being cleared for urban development are now gone. The wood yards in the relatively arboraceous outskirts of town are farther away. Many municipalities have established ordinances to limit smoke, although this is not a problem if well seasoned wood gets burned properly, and only means that fireplaces can not be used on ‘spare the air’ days.
Firewood can be purchased from tree services that need to dispose of wood anyway. Because it is only a byproduct of tree work, it will likely need to be stored and seasoned the year before it is needed, just like orchard wood. (Firewood from wood yards gets seasoned before it gets sold.) Some types of wood that are often mixed in leave a bit more residue in chimneys, necessitating more frequent chimney sweeping. Realistically though, chimneys should be cleaned regularly anyway.
Because firewood is perishable, it should be obtained annually, in quantities that will be used in a single winter. It can rot if stored outside too long. If stored in a shed or garage too long, it can get infested with rodents. Besides, too much firewood occupies quite a bit of space.
Synthetic logs (made from compressed wood byproducts and fuel) are an effective, clean and efficient alternative to real wood that do not need to be seasoned. Each log burns about as long as several real logs, and produces about as much heat, so only a few go a long way. They are always available from supermarkets, and can be brought home with the groceries. Pellet stoves that consume fuel pellets that look like stove food are even more efficient. However, there is no substitute for a fire with real wood in a real fireplace or wood stove.
Fireplaces simply are not what they used to be. Building regulations in many municipalities do not allow for the construction of new fireplaces, except only for pellet stoves. Fireplaces that get damaged by earthquakes are commonly removed instead of repaired. Now that urban sprawl has replaced so many of the rural areas and defunct orchards, firewood is more expensive, even if purchased from a tree service. When a tree needs to be cut down, no one seems to have the time to cut and split the wood.
Modern heating systems are so much more reliable, efficient and just plain easy. Their fuel can actually be less expensive than firewood, and is not nearly as polluting. There is no smoke to offend the neighbors. There are no potentially dangerous sparks. There is no dirty chimney that needs to be cleaned. There is no need for firewood occupying space in the garden. Yet, with all the advantages of other heating systems, many of who still have fireplaces like to use them now that the weather is getting cool.
Because so much heat and a few sparks go out through the chimney, it is extremely important to keep trees and vines away from the top of the chimney. Cypress, pines, cedars, large junipers, eucalypti and fan palms that are not groomed of their dried old leaves are very combustible. Vines like wisteria, bougainvillea, creeping fig and Boston ivy are not unusually combustible, but have a sneaky way of overwhelming chimneys and accumulating debris (and sometimes rat or bird nests!). Any vegetation will be combustible if it gets hot enough. Sparks from burning foliage above can easily ignite old fashioned cedar shingles.
Trees should also be pruned away from roofs, gutters, fences and anything else that can be damaged by the abrasive motion of the stems and foliage in the wind. Stems of deciduous trees lose weight as they defoliate, and may even lift off of roofs that they had been leaning onto just a few weeks ago, but should be pruned accordingly anyway. Branches that have been leaning on a roof for quite a while may have accumulated a bit more debris than would be expected. Gutters and downspouts should be cleared of debris before the rain starts, and may need to be cleared again later where deciduous trees fill them up through autumn and winter.
There are fewer fireplaces after every significant earthquake. Removal of a damaged chimney is probably more practical than repair, particularly if the fireplace does not get much use anyway. Wood stoves sometimes get removed simply because they are in the way. Modern building codes forbid their return once they are gone, and also forbid them in new construction.
The few surviving fireplaces and wood stoves do not get used as regularly as they used to. It seems that no one is around the home long enough to tend to a fire. Orchards that provided so much affordable firewood as they were being removed for urban development are gone now. The outskirts of town, where trees and woodlots might be found, are now more than a short drive away.
Firewood can still be purchased from tree service businesses that must dispose of the wood that their work generates. Because such firewood is a byproduct of urban forestry, it is an unpredictable mix of all sorts of urban trees, and must be procured early in the year to be seasoned by autumn and winter. It is now much too late to purchase green firewood for this winter.
Almost all types of urban firewood are comparable to more traditional types. A few types deposit more residue in chimneys, so that chimneys need to be cleaned more frequently. Firewood from woodlots can be surprisingly more expensive; but it burns cleaner, and is already seasoned. Many woodlots would be pleased to deliver firewood that is ready to burn now.
Firewood is perishable, so only slightly more than enough for one year should be procured annually. Any leftovers can rot if left out in the weather too long. Firewood last longer in a shed or garage, but takes up too much space, and can be attractive to rodents.
Synthetic logs from the supermarket happen to be more efficient than real wood, and do not need to be seasoned. A single log burns longer and cleaner than a few real logs, and produces as much heat. However, they are individually very expensive, and are just not the same as real firewood.
There are many reasons why fireplaces and their chimneys are not such a safety concern like they were decades ago. Only a few modern homes are even equipped with them. Installation of a new fireplace is outlawed in many municipalities, even if a fireplace gets damaged by an earthquake, and should be replaced. Urban sprawl has replaced almost all of the orchards and woods that once supplied affordable fuel.
Most of the few fireplaces and wood stoves that still get used are safer because their chimneys are outfitted with spark arrestors. Also, most combustible cedar roofs have been replaced by non-combustible roofing material. Nonetheless, chimneys can sometimes get overwhelmed by potentially combustible vegetation. Trees, large shrubbery and vines might need to be pruned for adequate clearance from the heat.
Vines like ivy, Boston ivy and creeping fig are sometimes allowed to climb chimneys because they do not damage bricks as easily as they damage painted surfaces. However, they can easily grow over the top of a chimney. Aggressive vines generate significant volumes of vegetation, and can accumulate even more from nearby trees. Because they are directly over chimney exhaust, they ignite as soon as a fir is lit below.
Trees that reach over chimneys take a bit more time to burn because heat dissipates somewhat in the space between the top of the chimney and the higher vegetation. Cypress, pine, eucalyptus, cedar and big junipers are very combustible. If they get close enough, ungroomed palms and yuccas can be even worse! Deciduous trees are mostly defoliated, and less combustible while it Is cool enough to use a fireplace.
Regardless, all chimneys need adequate clearance from vegetation. Trees and vines that were allowed to get too close while fireplaces were unused through summer will need to be pruned back before the first fire is lit to take the chill out of cooling autumn weather. Debris that collects behind (upslope from) chimneys should also be removed. It can be combustible while dry, and once dampened by rain, it can cause rot.
This is also a good time to start cleaning eaves-troughs (gutters) and downspouts. Yes, it may need to be done more than once if enough deciduous foliage continues to fall through autumn. Debris is easiest to clean out while dry (before it needs to be cleaned out), but unfortunately becomes messier with rain.
Heating homes has certainly changed. It has gotten much more efficient and less polluting. Homes are much better insulated than they were only a few decades ago. Heating systems use much less fuel, and produce much cleaner exhaust. That is partly how more than a million people who live in San Jose now make less smog than when there were half as many.
The unfortunate part of that efficiency is the decline in popularity of traditional fireplaces and stoves. Burning wood is now politically incorrect, and at times, even illegal. ‘Spare the air’ days are strictly enforced when air quality gets unpleasant.
In San Jose, building codes do not allow fireplaces to be build into new homes. Only homes that were build with fireplaces or stoves prior to the ordinance are outfitted with them. Fireplaces that are damaged by earthquakes are often removed instead of repaired.
Tending a fire does not fit into modern lifestyles very well anyway. If someone stays home long enough to do so, he or she is too busy with other work. Tending a fire simply is not considered a common household chore anymore. Fireplaces do not have thermostats, so do not maintain the sort of consistency in temperature that so many of us have become accustomed to.
Those of us who still use our fireplaces (when permitted) must procure firewood. There are no more deteriorating orchards to supply it. We can not grow our own because permits are needed to cut down trees that are big enough to make firewood. Permits are only granted for trees that must be cut down for other reasons. The need for fuel is not good enough.
Consequently, it becomes necessary to purchase expensive firewood. To some of us, it is still worth it. We can either purchase mixed firewood from a tree service, or get it from a firewood cutter in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There always seem to be more trees that need to be cut down than are needed for firewood.