Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 8, 2009

A Clean, Well-Lighted Fire

It’s fall. An early evening in southern California. Yes, we do notice that it’s fall, and we start to anticipate rain. And then, that ultimate clue, there’s the scent of wood smoke in the air.

What? you say.

Oh yes.  Now, if you’re not a Californian, I know what you’re thinking: selfish, spoiled surfers can’t be satisfied with having wrecked the earthly paradise with litter and car exhaust and oil refineries and nuclear generators and Mel Gibson, all the while piping water in from Colorado and Oregon to water their lawns, NOT to mention the desert they’ve made of what was once was the water-rich Owens Valley. Now you learn that in their spare time they cut down thousands of trees and burn them up in their fireplaces for … what? A rosy glow? A sprightly crackle?

Well, there’s probably something to that. I vividly remember my reaction when I was, I guess, a teenager, watching an interview on TV with Merlin Olsen, who had retired from his position in the line for the Los Angeles Rams; it was probably some Super Bowl show, back in that eon when the S.B. could actually occur in L.A. There he was, sitting in what looked like his living room, posed in front of a crackling fire. I thought that was the epitome of pretension.

Now that I live here, I get it. You see, most of the millions of houses built here, at least until the past few decades, were designed on the assumption that this IS the earthly paradise, in which the temperature might swing at its wildest, oh, five or six degrees north or south of 70, and so thousands — nay, tens or hundreds of thousands of those houses have no insulation, cheap windows and no furnaces worthy of the name. These little bungalows of joy have, instead, fireplaces, insurance against the rare dip of the mercury into the 50s or (impossible to imagine) even the 40s.

Well, the outside thermometer at my place here at 8:30 pm reads 47 degrees as I write this entry. OK, I hear you scoffing in Indianapolis and Cleveland. Don’t worry. I know that were it 47 where you are, you’d be out in the yard playing badminton in your shirtsleeves. Well, here we ARE conditioned to a comfort zone of about 5 degrees either side of 70, and in an uninsulated cracker box, the inside temperature pretty soon tends to resemble the outdoor one. So, voila, wood fires in L.A.

Would the atmosphere of this benighted metropolis be better-off if we didn’t burn trees? Yep. No doubt. Probably a good economic stimulus package would aim to put furnaces and insulation and weather-stripping and double-paned windows AND solar panels on every house here. In fact, let’s hope that a sizable portion of the population is taking advantage of the various federal tax incentives to do so. But, that will take time. We’ll probably make a bigger dent in the carbon footprint department switching to hybrid vehicles and, god forbid, mass transit: stuff like that. Don’t hold your breath. A state whose populace voted out the concept of increasing their property taxes and watched complacently as their state plummeted from #1 to #49 in per capita support for public education, the backbone of our democratic republic is not likely to find $30 billion to invest in public transport.

Of the 4 places I’ve lived here, 3 have had fireplaces. It’s a surprising part of the local culture when one first encounters it. I suppose for those who’ve grown up here, it’s not even something one thinks about.

After one winter without a fire inside, I went looking for firewood before winter #2 arrived. I didn’t know just where one would buy firewood here in the balmy desert, other than at the supermarket, where I’d seen those expensive little bundles stacked up near the entrance, but, when I did go looking, the guy at the counter at Sepulveda Lumber told me, yes, they did have firewood. Now came the moment of truth: I honestly didn’t know what sort of wood one might reasonably ask for in California. I knew that there were pines of every kind up in the mountains, and plenty of oaks growing in uncounted numbers among the hills: for example, out west toward Warner Springs and north into the Santa Margaritas. But, could anyone CUT a tree in California except big logging companies? So I admitted to the counterman that I was newly arrived from the Midwest, and didn’t know what sort of wood they might have. Bless him, he did not miss this golden opportunity: “We’ve got some nice palm wood,” he deadpanned. Nice. Turns out, you can get all kinds of wood, from pine and oak to fruitwood, so I loaded up the trunk of the ol’ VW Fox with as much pine and oak as it could reasonably hold and drove off to carbonize the atmosphere.

One hint. Like every other type of material sold at L.A. lumber companies, wood is never covered. You want to buy it in the fall before the rains start, or you’re buying wet wood. I’ll rant some other time about Angelenos letting things sit outside. There’s rain predicted soon. Right now, I gotta get to the lumber company. Might hit 42 before the night is out. Hope I get there before they sell out.

N.B. Los Angeles County and other municipalities do impose “no burn” periods when air pollution reaches a level at which residential fireplaces will exacerbate unacceptable air quality.

© Brad Nixon 2009, 2018


  1. 47 is staggeringly cold down there, while in cleveland it’s probably late may weather.
    up here in the temperate northwest, it’s sunny and 17, which, like for you, is lower than we’re used to.


  2. Actually, our little bungalow here in S. Cal. not far from the ocean, was pretty sturdily built. Completed in 1985, it has stucco, brick facia and some wood exterior. We do have actual insulation in the walls. We also have a REAL fireplace with brick and mortar, not the fake gas burning variety built of metal to look like brick found in most newer homes. (We live in a PUD, so we do have some standards here.)

    And since our home is actually well protected from climate change, we have NO real comfort or health need for a fireplace in Winter. (In short, no excuse for using a fireplace.) A fireplace here is purely ornamental or recreational, intended no doubt to remind me of my days back East when I lived in VIrginia and Ohio where a fireplace had some at least plausibly justifiable use. When I lived in Ohio when I was a teenager, I thought 50 degrees was warm. I’d play golf in shirt sleeves when it was in the 40’s. Heck, I used to play golf in Ohio when there was still snow on the ground. The bunkers had ice in them. No problem. Sand wedge works in snow. But now, here in Cal., the blood has thinned out over the years, and I get chilly at the mere mention of 60 degrees (a number that nearly matches my current age).

    So, here, the f.p, is just a part of the “life is paradise” mantra, and like many things here, form over substance. If it looks good and feels good, do it.

    In sum, here in my little corner of paradise in S. Cal. suburbia, we really have no excuse to be causing smoke to be belching out of our 25′ chimneys (also REAL brick — voila!). And I actually can now laugh secretly at some of my neighbors who fire up their puppies at Thanksgiving like clockwork, even tho’ it’s 75 degrees outside. Why? Because I’ve stopped using ours.

    I used to have a huge woodpile stocked with a nice blend of oak, pine, cedar, birch, etc. All gone. I don’t know. Got religion or something. Just stopped “cold turkey” (pun intended) doing it. Didn’t see the point any more. Maybe it’s my rapidly advancing old age. Who knows? I’m cutting back on many things. I don’t play golf anymore, either. Gave my clubs away. Courses are too crowded, and people get all hyper and take it too seriously. I thought golf was supposed to be a relaxing, social outing. Wrong. Here, you gotta be competitive, like driving on the freeway. Speed up: Don’t let that guy cut in front of you. Blow your horn often. Beat that pedestrian to the corner before he gets to the crosswalk. You know the routine. I’m tired of it all.

    Now, I look for venues that aren’t by nature competitive. No need to keep up with the Joneses. My wife and I go to a little coffee shop every Saturday morning. We like to read and discuss articles, or whatever. We get a little French pastry to go with our coffees. We hang out for an hour or so. Relaxing. Easy. Reminds us of our trips to France. No stress, no competition. I’m looking for the calm side of paradise now. Bring on the hot coffee and stow the wood and the golf clubs.


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