"My customers always ask me, 'John, how much wood am I going to burn this year?' " he laughs. "And I tell them, 'It depends on how close to the back door you're going to stack it.' "
Connors found what he felt was the perfect alternative: almond. It produces more BTUs than the majority of oak species, is available in huge, inexpensive quantities (California is the largest almond producer in the world), and — to Connors, the most significant factor — the almond tree matures in only seven years, making it an easily renewable resource.
Lastly, there's cost. A cord of oak from Sepulveda can cost $400 plus delivery while half a cord of juniper and half a cord of almond — the recommended mix — costs around $350.
If cost and efficiency are no object, there are specialty woods that some Angelenos buy for purely aesthetic reasons. Paul Wilczek, owner of Paul's Firewood in Little Falls, Minn., ships small boxes of white birch, oak and maple to a number of households in the Southern California area. The cost: $42 to $53 per 35-pound case, plus a $20 to $25 shipping charge.
"Birch is the white Cadillac of firewood," says Wilczek, who has supplied the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills. "It's a great performer. It's a hardwood, so it burns hot and it has waxy bark which creates the perfect dancing flames. I also sell a lot of it just for decorative purposes. I mean, think about it. You got this big, black brick hole in your living room when you're not having a fire. You fill it with white birch logs and it looks nice."
Nevertheless, California is nobody's poor cousin when it comes to exotic hardwoods. Visitors to the Bel Air Hotel on any cold or rainy winter evening are greeted by the intense fragrance of burning eucalyptus from any number of the 50 rooms with wood-burning fireplaces — but most famously, from the fireplace in the hotel bar.
"For years we burned pine logs, but many guests commented that the pine caused too much smoke and often spit because of the pine resin," says Howard Clarke, director of property and facilities operation. "In choosing a wood, we had to be cognizant of the fact if we had 50 or more chimneys going at once, we didn't want the entire property shrouded in smoke. We needed a wood that burned cleanly and fragrantly."
Though oily eucalyptus can smoke like a smudge pot when uncured, Clarke found that by aging the wood six months to a year, the wood produced very little smoke, a lot of heat and even more fragrance. "It has become so popular," he says, "we go through two to three cords per week during the winter season."
Weiant and Stein's three-fireplace house is a fantasy come true for the couple. Weiant, a film producer and owner-chef of the catering service Ultimate Party, grew up on a farm outside of Hartford, Conn. Stein, who as a producer won a Tony for "Sideman" and is filming the television reality show "The Scholar" with partner Steve Martin, grew up fireplace-less on Long Island.
The couple has been tempted by some of the more exotic firewood, but they prefer the timing they've been able to achieve with the consistent burn of almond. "One of the most awkward problems in hosting a gathering is how to signal your guests that it's time for them to leave," says Weiant. "If you've had a really nice evening, it sours the mood to suddenly say, 'I'm tired. I want to do the dishes and go to bed.''
"What Joan and I have found is that when the coals get to a certain point, then we can put on one piece of almond and it will burn brilliantly for about 40 minutes. Once the last flame flickers out and it turns to coals, it becomes like an unconscious signal to the party. Invariably, everyone will get up at that moment and leave."
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Grab a cord
Sepulveda Building Materials
Locations in Laguna Niguel, Gardena, Thousand Palms and San Bernardino
(juniper, almond, oak)
Fred Ford and Company
(eucalyptus, oak, citrus and olive)
Little Falls, Minn.
(birch, maple, oak)