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Smoke gets in their eyes

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I'M typing in front of a crackling hearth, with regret that March has arrived.

Don't get me wrong, I'm ready for spring. But, soon, the arrival of warm weather will also mark the end of the wood-burning season. Such is my love for burning fires all winter long that when our family vacationed in Florida at Christmas, I made sure to turn on a yule log through Comcast's Xfinity on Demand before I'd let anyone open presents. I can't be the only one. Watching a wood fire burn on TV is a tradition that dates back to 1966, when WPIX-TV broadcast the first one for viewers in New York City.

Comcast's recent incarnation singed my TV screen for 48 minutes, but that length is not exactly a barn-burner by Norwegian standards. In the Scandinavian nation, a program inspired by a book about firewood featured a live, burning fire for eight straight hours, and it was a hit. The only other on-screen action was supplied by the hands that were occasionally visible when tending the fire.

I was pleased, but incredulous, when I read Sarah Lyall's account in the New York Times until I spoke with Lars Mytting, author of Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying and Stacking Wood -- and the Soul of Wood-Burning.

I told him of our mutual affinity for wood-burning and we compared notes as to what makes a good fire. We agreed, for example, that maintaining a good bed of ash is essential.

"In fact, one of the oldest fire prayers that we have in Norway is praise to the ashes for their ability to maintain the glow in the fireplace," Mytting said.

He didn't strike me as the type who'd pay $25 for a box of Duraflame Colorlogs. Not surprisingly, he told me that real Norwegian men don't use fire-starters. "We use old local newspapers with half-finished crosswords in them," he said.

But Norway's best-known pyrotechnist shared a tip I hadn't expected: He inverts the kindling.

"We have done quite a lot of scientific research, because to reduce the air pollution, we have been very wary here as to how we build the fire to avoid smoke from the chimney," he said. "The best practice is actually to build a small type of logs and then start the fire from the top so that it burns downward. That's a bit opposite to what most customs are, but by doing it this way, we ensure that the hottest spot is on top of the fireplace. That way, we will actually reduce pollution and get more heat from the stove."

Mytting is also particular as to the type of wood he burns, which depends on the temperature.

"The tradition is often to try to find as hard and heavy a wood as possible to generate the most heat, but in fact, during fall and spring and days when it's not so cold, actually you can get a cleaner fire burning that's more suitable to a modern house if you use different types of wood," he said. "So I use spruce, pine, birch and lighter sorts of wood, like aspen and alder."

And on the coldest days?

"Well, if I can get ahold of oak or beech, that is absolutely the best, and I would love to have some hickory, but we don't have that here."

If there is one common mistake he sees in fire-building, it is that people often select logs that are too heavy.

"It's very difficult to start a fire when you have these large, heavy logs, so always get it started with lots of kindling and smaller, finely chopped pieces of firewood, and that is even if you are firing from the top down," he said. "When you are using a cast-iron stove, people often don't give it enough air, so that you actually get a lot of smoke instead of burning the smoke. One of the mistakes is that (people think) smoke is necessary, but it's not. Half of the energy in the wood is the smoke, so what we need is to burn it and not let it out."

The translation of Mytting's Norwegian best-seller into English is completed and should soon be available this side of the Atlantic.

Too late for a neighbour of mine, D. Campbell Harper, who passed in 2006 at age 93. Harper was a real character on my block. He would sit for four- and five-hour stretches alone on a lawn chair perched on his sloping lawn, watching his fire.

"Nothing beats the company of a good fire," he'd say.

Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

--McClatchy Tribune

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 J11

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