Almond joy

Ted Weiant and Joan Stein added a fireplace in the master bedroom in their L.A. home. The couple prefer almond logs because they tend to burn at the same rate each time. (Ricardo DeAratanha / LAT)

Ted Weiant speaks with the unabashed pride of someone who has found the holy grail of domestic winter comfort: He and his wife, Joan Stein, he says, are "fireplace freaks."

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."