Want a great fire? Start with the right wood and add a touch of precaution.

It's time to enjoy relaxing in front of an open hearth. And if your fireplace has glass doors, you can do it with less overnight heat loss.
It's time to enjoy relaxing in front of an open hearth. And if your fireplace has glass doors, you can do it with less overnight heat loss. (Sandra Leavitt Lerner For The Washington Post)
By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, January 9, 2010

On the heels of an extraordinary fall, when many plants stayed green into December, we had a record-breaking snowfall in time for the holidays. Now the leaves are gone and the remnants of the flowers in the garden are black. It's time to enjoy relaxing in front of an open hearth, with the sweet aroma of burning wood.

Building the perfect fire starts with picking the right wood.

Wood that doesn't burn well may smoke, smell offensive or smolder quickly, destroying a pleasurable experience. Often, the problem is that the wood was not seasoned properly.

The most efficient way to season wood is to stack the split logs outside for six months to a year, making sure they have good air circulation. If buying firewood, locate a reliable dealer. Other than burning it, there is no precise way to know whether it's well seasoned. Ask when the wood was cut and what kind it is; it should already be split. Unless it was dead wood to start, chances are the logs have not been seasoned if they were cut less than nine months ago.

Firewood can be well seasoned and not burn because it's wet. It will typically dry overnight and easily light the next day if it's moist from snow or rain. Bring it indoors a day or two before you plan to make a fire, but don't keep it inside for more than several days to a week. Insects can live in dead wood, although they are seldom a danger to structures or people.

For example, termites are social insects that need a trail to find their way home from logs moved indoors. So they would be lost, do no damage and perish. Another common wood-feeding insect is the powder post beetle. These insects don't feed on properly kiln-dried or treated lumber and wouldn't find a home in the house, except firewood, which you intend to burn. There are other borers, beetles and ants that like rotting wood and won't do anything but meander, fly, or scurry to a window or door to escape.

Don't cover firewood with tarps. The coverings hold moisture. Expose wood to the elements and store on a surface to keep it three or four inches above ground, promoting good airflow. A weatherproof shed makes a perfect storage environment for fully seasoned, dry wood.

Unless you have an out-of-the-way location, store your firewood in a neat stack to use as a landscape design element. Build a handsome stack from aged, graying logs that are split into fairly even sizes. Crisscross them to leave space between layers for air circulation.

Stacked timber can serve as a rustic fence, continually changing height as wood is used and replaced. Construct it to serve as a physical barrier or use to edge vegetable gardens or screen compost piles. Vegetables, like cucumbers, morning glories or other annual vines, can be planted to grow on stacked wooden walls in summer.

The standard measure of firewood is the cord: a neat stack of logs 4 feet high by 4 feet wide by 8 feet long (128 cubic feet). One-half cord can cost $125 in the Washington area.

Another standard is the bundle, a parcel of firewood banded together or shrink-wrapped and measuring about 0.75 cubic feet. The cost is about $4 to $7. Bundles are available at garden and home improvement centers, grocery stores, and hardware and convenience stores.

Another way to obtain firewood is by gathering it; however, fallen trees have environmental value as wildlife habitats and soil amendments. Wood gathering is usually not allowed on state lands or in parks without special arrangements. Find out more about wood availability on public lands by contacting local park authorities to ascertain current policies. You may be cited or subject to fines if you remove wood from public lands without a permit.

Varieties of firewood available in the mid-Atlantic region that are excellent for burning are oak mixed with maple, hickory, ash, locust and walnut. Undesirable wood includes tulip poplar, catalpa, willow and boxelder because they smolder. Mulberry is difficult to season and burn. Conifers or softwoods such as pine, fir, spruce and hemlock burn fast, pop and throw more sparks than hardwoods.

Specialty woods may be hard to find, but they'll enhance your enjoyment of fires. Varieties that emit fragrance are apple, cherry, peach and plum. Call an orchard to find out about pruned wood that might be available.

Colors created by minerals burning in wood also add interest. Generally, firewood burns yellow because of calcium or sodium chloride content. Apple wood aged four to six years will burn with rainbow-colored flames. Driftwood creates blue to lavender fires -- the longer wood has drifted, the more colorful its flames.

Don't burn lumber from construction sites or leftovers from home renovations. Plywood contains glue. When burned, it creates unhealthy smoke and coats the inside of your chimney. Painted lumber is also a no-no. Pressure-treated lumber is even worse because it can be infused with arsenates. As a rule, do not burn anything in your hearth but unpainted, untreated and unglued wood.

Exceptions to this rule are artificial logs that contain molded sawdust and paraffin, and many new eco-friendly products that have become available in recent years such as compressed sawdust, recycled wax corrugated cardboard and compressed wood logs.

Burn a few sheets of newspaper in the hearth before starting a fire to ensure that the damper is open. If it isn't, smoke will fill the room. Dampers should always be closed when a fireplace isn't in use.

It's very important to know the condition of your chimney. Schedule an annual inspection, inside and out. If the chimney is in good shape, there's virtually no danger of it starting a house fire. Make sure that joints of the masonry on the outside are solid -- no missing mortar. When looking up the chimney with a flashlight, it should be smooth and fairly clean with no loose mortar evident. The damper should open and close easily.

All fireplaces should have screens of a fine enough wire mesh to deflect popping sparks. If screens are made of glass, they will act as dampers and save some excess overnight heat loss.

Always dismantle fires before leaving the house or going to bed. Cover coals with ashes, and place smoldering logs against the back wall of the fireplace. Even if a fire appears to be burned out, leave the damper fully open for a while. Hot coals may be hidden in the ashes.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md.

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