We have an amazing wood stove. It’s almost as big as a 50-gallon drum—or maybe it is that big. Many people have thought it was “homemade,” but no, there is a manufacturer, Fire-View, and this stove came with the house, built in 1978.
We’ve enjoyed it the entire 10 years we’ve lived here. I’m usually the fire builder. I’ve learned a great deal about building fires, building fires that stay burning, rekindling waning fires, the properties of different kinds of wood.
To give you an idea of how intensive my education has been, we are in our sixth winter of using the wood stove as our main source of heat. This is our second winter of having a timed thermostat that kicks on for one hour each morning that the house temperature is below 65° at the set time. (Maybe we’re getting a little soft.)
For the most part, this heat has been the product of free wood. We bought a pickup truckload and a half of scraps from a firewood processing plant two years ago when an elderly friend staying with us needed the house warmer than our customary 65°. And several years we spent $20 for a permit to collect dead and down on certain U.S. Forest Service land. That is, we do have a great deal of sweat equity in our firewood.
This last year, our firewood has all been collected from people’s yards—four cords of it! Consequently, we’ve not been picky about the variety of wood. My least favorite is the diseased Mondale pines, because the smoke smells so bad. But it burns fast and hot. Pinion smells better but does not burn as hot. Juniper smells the best. Manzanita burns the hottest. We have quite a bit of mimosa, too. It’s fine when well-dried and split. Rarely do we have oak because it is protected here; even standing dead oak cannot be collected on public land. A neighbor gifted us four logs.
This is our first really good year for “sticks.” While my ideal definition is 1″ or so diameter and 14-18″ long, we’ve ranged far afield from that. Previously, my partner in wood gathering eschewed these, but has finally—our 10th year—realized their excellence for getting a fire going quickly and restarting a dying fire.
In the cord I stacked myself, I laid a row of split wood, then a layer of sticks. Repeat. When I met with resistance, I said, “It takes all kinds, and all sizes, to make the best fires.”
We had enough sticks this year to build a giant packrat midden, and that is what it looked like before I built a separate crib for them out of wooden pallets.
We also were gifted with the opportunity to collect from someone’s yard a great deal of old and splintering lattice. This is the most excellent kindling and can often be lighted directly. I discovered how much “appreciation” for “all kinds” my partner had finally accepted when I recently pulled back the tarp from the stick crib to see it had been refilled with not only sticks, but also handfuls of lattice strips—which I prefer to keep only for starting the fire, not for feeding to keep one going.
I am a happy fire tender now that I no longer have to go to the 1) split pine rack, 2) the juniper rack, and 3) the stick pile to gather fuel for the ideal fire. The ideal fire is made up of all kinds and all sizes of wood. The thinner it is, the faster it burns. The thicker it is the longer it burns.
Logs, or sticks, thick or thin, do not burn well alone. You need a group. Or at least two to do well. A fire is like a neighborhood or a community or town. Variety, not sameness, works the best.
To paraphrase John Donne:
No log is a fire,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the conflagration,
A part of the heat.
If a stick rolls off the the grate,
The flame is the less…