Indulging a burning passion

November 01, 1997|By Rob Kasper

IT IS TIME to start burning things, in a controlled, responsible way.

It is the fireplace season, when smoke curls out of the chimney, when the hearth glowsand when the air is crisp -- at least the air outside the house. Inside the house, the air might be somewhat smoky as the fire struggles. That means it is time to throw open a window.

Opening a window clears the air, revives the fire and keeps the smoke detectors from shrieking. True, it doesn't do much to warm up the room. But after years of poking at smoldering logs, I have come to the conclusion that fireplaces provide more entertainment than heat.

Nobody would mistake me for Vulcan, the god of fire. I am not one of those guys who can rub two sticks together and produce a fire that puts out as many Btu as a Sparrow's Point steel mill. But I do like to sit and stare at a crackling, or even a semi-crackling, fire.

Although I am a big fan of fire, I engage in only occasional combustion. That is because the fireplaces in our Baltimore rowhouse were built to burn coal, not wood. The Christmas Day that I discovered this fact is known in family lore as "The Day Dad Tried To Burn the House Down." Since that memorable day, authorities ranging from the fire department to my wife havetold me to forget about making fires in our crumbling fireplaces.

Since I can't conflagrate in my Baltimore home, I have become a visiting fireman. I seek out fireplaces in other abodes -- the homes of relatives, vacation houses -- where I can burn wood and make smoke.

The episodic nature of my work keeps me enthusiastic. If I had to make a fire every night -- lugging the logs, gathering the kindling, then cleaning up the ashes -- it would seem like a domestic duty. But since fire-making is a sometime thing, it is appealing.

I make enough fires to keep current on the excuses you are supposed to utter when something goes wrong. When a fire fails to spark, you blame a series of alliterative enemies of NTC combustion: "wet wood," "down draft" and "crummy kindling."

I know that every year, at the start of the burning season, you should (1) make sure creatures have not taken up residence in your chimney, (2) make sure the damper works (this is best done before flames are licking the damper handle), and (3) just in case, make sure the smoke detector has fresh batteries.

I did all of the above last weekend as I attempted to light my first fire of the season while visiting an Eastern Shore fireplace.

My 12-year-old son assisted me in the primal arts of conflagration.

We opened the damper and with a flashlight inspected the flue for stowaways. Then I burned a rolled-up newspaper in the fireplace, as my assistant stood outside making sure the smoke was traveling out the chimney. Then we arranged the pyre, starting with a base of rolled-up newspapers, adding twigs and finishing off with two seasoned logs.

My son lighted the match and started the newspapers burning. A few minutes later there was smoke in the air, as the fire sputtered.

"Open the window," I told the kid. He balked, saying opening a window didn't make sense.

I reminded him he should not question the wisdom of his elders.

The kid opened the window and the fire reacted. In a matter of minutes, we had ignition. The first fire of the season had lifted off. Half an hour later, the room was warming up.

Pub Date: 11/01/97

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