In Praise Of Real Fire 

Spare me the soul-sucking fake fireplaces.

If there's one thing I know after 15 years of inspecting houses and writing about houses, it's this: People sure do like their fireplaces. People can put up with houses that have sparky wiring, clogged-up plumbing, and leaky roofs, but don't tell a man he can't burn wood in his house. He'll get a look on his face like his dog just died.

From a home inspector's point of view, the whole idea of a fireplace is just crazy. In these days of efficient central heating and air conditioning, it just doesn't make sense to drag bug-infested wood into your house and set it on fire. Fireplaces are mess-makers and energy-wasters. Every now and then, fireplace fire will get loose and burn a house down, leaving the occupants with nothing to do but stand out in the yard in their pajamas, talking to the TV news crew.

Up until lately, I was convinced that just about everybody enjoyed a nice fire. But in the last few weeks, I've learned that some folks in Northern California not only don't enjoy fires and fireplaces, they want them outlawed.

The Berkeley City Council has banned log-burning fireplaces in new houses, according to the Los Angeles Times. Jami Caseber, a Berkeley environmental activist, told the Times that the anti-fireplace ordinance is "the first step to controlling or curtailing residential burning."

To hear the Berkeley anti-fire types tell it, smoke from wood fires creates 30 percent of the regions's winter particle pollution. On some days, they say, wood smoke is 80 percent of the pollution. Some say Northern California wood smoke is as dangerous as second-hand tobacco smoke.

When I heard about this, I checked with my barbecuing buddy, and general fire expert, Charlie Wood, who lives down near Atlanta. "What kind of wood are they burning out there anyway," Charlie wondered. "How have they managed to pollute California in 150 years, while Virginia is still okay after 400 years? I think the whole damn population needs a lesson in proper fire-tending."

Well, to get the answers, I checked with some Northern Californians who, as far as I know, are perfectly sensible people. They told me that the locals burn all kinds of wood, including something they call "piss fir" because it smells like urine when it burns. My Marin County buddy Larry Hoytt told me that several Northern California cities are outlawing wood-burning fireplaces and allow only ersatz gas-burning units. "Most of these are mood boxes with ceramic logs, which simulate that sexy fireplace appearance," he said.

My California buddies also explained that the wood smoke tends to linger in the valleys, and, after a while, it really can stink up the place. Nobody from California has asked for my opinion, but I'm going to offer this anyway: You Californians, first thing you do is quit burning piss fir. Export that stuff to Japan, where they need all the wood they can get. As for Charlie's advice on fire-tending, I agree. Burn dry wood and burn it hot. That'll cut down on the particulate matter. Finally, it wouldn't hurt to import some masons from back east, men who know how to build fireplaces and chimneys that work. For cryin' out loud, you people are heading down a road to virtual fire. You need to turn your heads around and quick.

Like I said, fireplaces don't make a lot of sense these days. But fireplaces aren't supposed to make sense. They're supposed to be sensual and get to you on the reptilian-brain level. To do that, a fireplace needs real fire, with flames that'll warm your face and dry your lips in pulses. It needs a smell that sticks in your memory. A decent fire has a beginning, a middle, and an end. One of those sorry-ass, switch-controlled, mood-box gas fires might be fit for cooking a sauce, but it's one poor source of pleasure.

A while back, I had to tell a customer that the fireplace in his old house might not be safe. I told him that the safest thing would be, well, a damn mood box. "I can't do it," he said. "For a while, I was thinking about moving to the suburbs, into one of those houses with a little fake gas fireplace. But then I thought, 'Those fireplaces are little gateways to hell.' Every minute I'd sit in front of it, it would just suck out a little bit of my soul. I'd rather have a real fire and take a chance on burning my house down."

I've just about decided that he's right. These days, when a customer asks me if he can use his fireplace, I tell him that as long as he doesn't come crying to me if his house catches fire, he not only can use his fireplace, he ought to use his fireplace. Life is short. Simple pleasures are few. I say light the fires up and snuggle in close while your senses are still sharp and your soul's still intact.

You can e-mail Helter Shelter at

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