By Kent Black
Special to The Times
January 27, 2005
And there are three holy grails in the home of Weiant and Stein.
The couple arrived in Los Angeles from New York in 1992 and three years later purchased a two-bedroom Craftsman cottage in the Spalding Square area northeast of Sunset and Fairfax that boasted the original moldings and built-ins. But what really clinched it for the couple was the massive fireplace with its original tiled hearth.
Weiant built a second fireplace in the rear master bedroom "to replace an insignificant window," its handmade green tile hearth and redwood mantle a perfect fit with the Arts and Crafts design of the house. Returning the favor, Stein bought Weiant a portable copper fire pit for the outdoor garden.
To feed their newfound fireplace obsession, Weiant first turned to the compressed wood logs encased in paper. "We got over that pretty quickly. They're just decorative. There's no heat and the smell is a little too chemically," he says.
Next, Weiant bought small bundles of plastic-swathed pine every time he visited the local supermarket. "On one visit I noticed a bundle that said 'California hotwood.' It turned out to be almond, which is an incredibly clean and hot-burning hardwood. Now I start the fires with a compressed log, throw on a couple pieces of pine to get it really going, and then an almond log. I'd say we're burning through a couple cords a year now."
While the wood-buying habits of the majority of Angelenos tend toward a rainy day purchase of a tote-able bag of quick-burning pine at the supermarket, Weiant and Stein illustrate the increasing sophistication of some Southern California fireplace owners. Not only do they recognize the savings in buying a half or full cord of wood and the environmental responsibility in choosing sustainable woods, but they have educated themselves on the finer points of firewood: fragrance, combustibility, heating value and, even, flame quality.
And, if you think these wood burners are just a tiny group of local pyromaniacs, you'll be surprised at their numbers.
According to Los Angeles' Air Quality Management District, half a million to 600,000 households in Los Angeles County enjoy wood fires each year. Senior meteorologist Joe Cassmassi says 90% of those households "burn about 50 pounds of wood annually" while the remaining 10% burn more than 800 pounds per year.
Greg Short, 50, who owns and operates Westwood One Firewood in White City, Ore., invested nearly $250,000 in firewood processing equipment when he came across grocery retailer statistics indicating that on cold, rainy nights, more than 400,000 Southern Californians visit their local supermarket or hardware store and purchase 1 million-plus bundles of firewood.
"The trick for a wholesaler like me," he says, "is anticipating which of the 24 nights out of 365 is going to be cold and rainy enough to get all those people to buy a couple bundles of wood."
Like many other wholesalers, Short was low on inventory when the December-January deluge hit. "It broke my heart," says Short, who sells mostly pine in 0.7 cubic-foot bundles to supermarket chains. "They [the supermarkets] were selling out, but I had nothing left to give them."
According to several firewood wholesalers, the majority of firewood sales in the Los Angeles area are what is referred to as softwood. Softwoods include pine, fir and juniper and are popular with consumers because they're relatively easy to light; because of their high resin content, they blaze away fast and furious. The downside is that softwoods don't produce much sustained heat — their BTUs (British Thermal Units, a measurement of heat) are between 15 million and 20 million, as compared with 32.9 for almond, 31.7 for canyon oak and 37.3 for olive.
"Southern Californians buy firewood for the snap, crackle, pop," says Fred Ford, 68, who has been logging local mountains for more than 40 years. "It's not about heat; it's what I call the $20 romantic evening: a rainstorm, a nice bottle of wine and a bundle of firewood."
According to Ford, one of the largest harvesters in the Southland, a good portion of the firewood burning in local fireplaces is also cut locally. Operating under strict guidelines in a California resource code under the California Department of Forestry, the bulk of Ford's annual harvest is dead, dying or misshapen trees from private lands that can't be used for lumber.
"A good example is a job we did a few years ago at the UCLA Bruin Woods. There was a combination of pine and oaks. The pines all died from the Western bark beetle, so we went in and cleaned it up," he says. "The benefit was that the oaks, which had been struggling because of the pine canopy, suddenly took off."
Like any good woodsman, Ford has his personal favorites for the fireplace, including olive, oak and eucalyptus. "There's a science to firewood, just like anything else. There are a lot of factors like knowing what burns hot, what burns clean, what burns easily and what's renewable. People who like burning wood in their fireplaces should know more about wood than just that they can get it from Albertson's for $2.99."
One local retailer who has made it a point of honor to educate local consumers is John Connors, 60, vice president of Sepulveda Building Materials. Connors' father, a local masonry contractor, started the business in Los Angeles in 1960. There are now four locations, including the headquarters in Laguna Niguel.
"Basically, what my dad realized soon after he started the yard was that there wasn't much masonry business on rainy days," he recalls. "So we took up selling firewood to keep the guys in the yard busy during the bad weather."
Over the years, Connors has weaned his customers away from the expensive and impractical small bundles of softwood and into investing in one-fourth, one-half , or full cords of wood.
"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.' "
Though he has always encouraged his customers to split their orders between softwoods and hardwoods, several years ago he became concerned about the increasing demand for oak. "First of all, though oak gives off good heat, it's difficult to start and doesn't really produce a good flame. But, more importantly, oak is not a readily renewable resource. It can take an oak 100 years to reach maturity."
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."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
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)
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