Fireplaces Are A Rare Luxury

51028thumbThere 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.

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Tree Monster

P71203Matthew McDermott got this picture, which was actually part of a video, of a tree burning from within during the devastating fires in Sonoma County last October 9. Many of us saw it in the news. It is actually not as uncommon as it would seem to be. Interior wood is more combustible, and sometimes already well aerated from decay, so can burn if exposed to fire through wounds or cavities, while the exterior of the same tree resists combustion. This is why there are so many big and healthy coastal redwoods with burned out hollow trunks. Of course, trees more commonly burn from the outside.

Once burned, charred wood is resistant to decay. Redwoods and cedars are resistant to decay anyway, so once charred and doubly resistant, they can stand for decades.

When my younger brother and I were little tykes, one such charred cedar lived at our maternal Grandparent’s summer house outside of Pioneer. That is, it ‘lived’ there before it got charred by a fire a very long time before the forest that was there in the early 1970s grew up around it. I never actually saw it living. It was VERY dead long before my time.

The problem was that my younger brother and I did not KNOW for certain that it was dead. It was a big charred trunk at the bottom of the clearing downhill from the house. We could see it from almost anywhere, except from inside or uphill of the house. It was ominous. It was creepy. It seemed to watch us. The rest of the pines, firs, cedars and everything else in the forest was so green and lush; but the big black carcass was always there.

We were not totally afraid though. Our Uncle Bill was there too. He was the greatest superhero in the entire universe! He was bigger and stronger than any man. He was tall enough to hang our swing in the big tall black oak tree. He had already protected us from the bats. (We did not know what bats were, but we knew they were scary.) He breathed smoke, and from a white and gold can with a picture of a waterfall and a horseshoe on it, he drank a magical potion that might have given him some of his superpowers. (My brother and I tried it, but it tasted icky.)

Uncle Bill had a chainsaw.

Uncle Bill started to cut the base of the big dead Tree Monster while everyone else watched from a distance. To us kids, it seemed to take a long time. Eventually, the Tree Monster wobbled a bit, and fell forward towards us, landing on the ground with a big dusty thud. The top broke off and slid a bit farther from the rest of the carcass, which only made the secondary death of the Tree Monster seem that much more violent. After a bit of a pause, my brother and I approached in disbelief. It was twice as dead as it was before! Uncle Bill had killed the dead Tree Monster!

We walked on top of the fallen carcass just to be certain, and found no signs of life. We inspected the low and wide dead stump and found only sawdust. When we looked back at where the Tree Monster had always been, we saw only lush green pine, fir and cedar foliage.

Through the following year, Uncle Bill cut and split the Tree Monster into firewood for my Grandmother to cook with. It kept us warm at night. Uncle Bill kept us safe.

Trees Do Not Like Chimneys

P71027There 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.

Firewood

P71027Heating 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.