THE GOODS : A Burning Desire : With the weather outside so frightful, a fire would be delightful. But if you don't get into the woods, you can't generate any heat.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A welcome chore on a chill winter's evening. Start a fire in the fireplace.

Ease back and enjoy the warmth, the dancing flames and glowing wood and listen to the cold rain dripping outside the windows.

Easy enough? But in reality, the age-old practice of harnessing fire isn't the painless venture it ought to be. You need some knowledge before settling down with that crackling fire, beginning with when you buy the wood.

* The purchase. Did you receive a full cord? (A cord is the official unit of measurement for bulk firewood sales.) Or have you fallen victim to an unscrupulous firewood vendor?

* The wood. Is it sufficiently seasoned? Recently harvested, sappy-wet wood is sure to sizzle and smolder.

* The stack. You're not trying to burn a single log, are you? Don't laugh. This fire-making error is committed often. One must display a bit of log-stacking prowess to be successful.

"People want a great big flame that lasts and lasts, but it doesn't come all that easy," says Pat Corner, owner of A-1 Santa Monica Fuel Co. and a 30-year veteran of firewood sales.

Whether you intend to heat your home or create some intimate aesthetics, you need to know a little bit about the business of firewood, Corner says.

Firewood is classified in two categories: hardwood and softwood. Prices can vary significantly. Hardwoods are the priciest.

The more dense hardwoods--such as oak and eucalyptus--produce a high level of heat and burn slowly, ideal for home-heating wood stoves.

Softwoods--including most pine species--can generate intense heat for a short period, but burn much faster than hardwoods.

In Southern California, the predominant wood varieties are oak, eucalyptus, walnut and a few pines.

Oak is the king. The longest and hottest-burning of the hardwoods, oak also has the biggest price tag. This winter, vendors are fetching on average $350 and up for a cord of oak.

Eucalyptus is a less expensive alternative. This oily hardwood emits an aromatic scent favored by many users. Expect to pay in the range of $265 to $310 per cord.

Walnut, selling this year for $280 to $310 a cord, is another favored hardwood. "It's a good medium burner," Corner says. "Walnut doesn't burn as hot as eucalyptus or oak, but with a small living room it would be perfect."

If you use your fireplace intermittently, budget savers such as pine, cedar, juniper and pinion can be a more practical choice. Price range: $225 to around $300.

Purchasing a mixture of hardwood and softwood is preferred by many firewood users, says Larry Snavely of Jones Firewood Yard in Hawthorne. "Some nights you'll go to bed early, so you'll only want the fire going a short while. Burn the pine. Maybe you're having a party and the fire will be going all night. Burn the oak."

Whichever wood suits your needs, be sure to shop around. Prices can vary. Check the yellow pages and classified ads. Many vendors offer free delivery inside a limited area. Otherwise, delivery charges for a load can be as much as $15.

An additional charge may be made--again, depending on the vendor--if you ask to have the logs moved and stacked in another place than where they are unloaded.

Check the quality on delivery. Seasoned wood is dry wood--and the only kind that will burn efficiently. Don't be duped into buying green firewood. Once the tree has been harvested and split into logs, sufficient seasoning can take six months to a year, depending on the variety of wood.

To ensure the logs are ready for the fireplace, look for signs of extreme weathering, says Fred Vanacore, proprietor of Hollywood Firewood Co. "Is the bark falling off or easily removed? Take two pieces and slam them together. You want a ringing crack similar to two bats being knocked together--not the dull thud that green wood gives."

Make sure you receive the amount of wood you paid for. The cord is the only legal unit of measure for sales of bulk firewood in California, says Dennis Johannesen, a supervisor in the division of measurement standards for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Wood can also be purchased by the half, quarter or eighth cord.

A full cord measures 8 feet long by 4 feet high by 4 feet deep. A tightly stacked cord contains 128 cubic feet of wood.

When buying wood over the phone, make certain it is being sold by the cord--and not by the pickup truckload, Johannesen says. A truckload usually doesn't amount to a full cord.

Los Angeles County consumer protection and weights and measures officials report few complaints about unsavory firewood vendors operating in Los Angeles County. Still, get a receipt. In all sales of non-packaged wood, state regulations require the seller to furnish the buyer with a bill of sale giving the amount of wood purchased, the total selling price, the seller's name and address and the date of sale or delivery.

So, you've ordered your cord of seasoned wood.

First of all, it's OK to store it outdoors. You can stack it off the ground on planks or pallets and drape a tarp over the top during the rainy season, but if the wood has been properly seasoned, you need not worry if it gets wet, says Pat Corner.

"If it's seasoned right, there won't be a problem," he says. "You might have to leave the gas on a few extra minutes, but it'll burn just fine.

Now the task at hand is to plop some on the fireplace grate and let it roar.

Not so fast.

"The biggest complaint I get is a customer calling to say, 'The wood you just sold me won't burn,' " says Corner. "My response is always, 'You can't burn one log.' And they always say, 'How did you know?' "

Corner offers a socio-geographic observation to explain the shortcomings of his fire-challenged clientele: "You don't have the ol' country boy around here. We're city folk."

Building a better fire is made infinitely easier if your fireplace is equipped with a gas lighter. Place two logs on the bottom. A third should sit diagonally across the top, which allows for better air circulation. Turn the gas on medium flow. Light the gas and allow the logs to catch fire until they burn easily without the aid of the gas flame.

Things get a bit trickier without the convenience of gas. Build a small bed of kindling, mixing in a small amount of paper. The kindling should be engulfed in flames before you add the larger logs.

Once started, you can keep the fire stoked to your heart's content. When the original three logs are burning without the aid of gas, toss a fourth on top. As the fire begins to burn down, refuel with another log or two as desired.

"And once in a while if for some reason the fire doesn't want to go good--that's when your poker comes in. Mix it up a bit to get some air in there. Air is the factor for a good fire," Corner says.

One more thing you need to know: That cozy fire can endanger you if you don't diligently observe basic safety precautions.

Never attempt to repair cracked masonry or loosened joints in a metal flue. Leave it for the pros. An ill-repaired chimney can allow carbon monoxide to seep into the home instead of being released, says Capt. Steve Valenzuela of the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Have your chimney inspected annually by a professional and cleaned if necessary. This is especially important for Southern Californians because of repeated earthquake activity, Valenzuela says.

A chimney will need to be swept clean of creosote, a residual tar-like substance, about every three years under average use, says Julie Nelson of Fiddler on the Roof, a chimney-cleaning chain based in Canoga Park. Using the fireplace two or three times a week during the winter is considered average, she says. The cost of cleaning: $70 to $80.

Chimney sweeps use a wire brush attached to a long, flexible pole to scour the inner walls of the flue. Buildup as little as a quarter-inch thick can be hazardous.

"It can explode like a fireball," Nelson says. "It's more heat than the chimney is designed to withstand." The intense heat can cause fire to spread to surrounding areas.

As a precaution against the flight of errant sparks, all chimneys should be outfitted with a spark arrester--a four-sided, cage-like metal-mesh screen that sits atop the chimney. And always keep the glass doors or screen to the fireplace shut tight to keep flying sparks inside.

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A Burning Desire

Oak

* Hardwood

* Slow burning

* High heat levels

* Average price per cord: $350 and up

*

Eucalyptus

* Hardwood

* Slow burning

* High heat levels

* Average price per cord: $265-$300

*

Walnut

* Hardwood

* Medium burning

* Not as hot as eucalyptus or oak

* Average price per cord: $280-$310

*

Pine

* Softwood

* Fast burning

* Intense heat levels for short periods of time

* Average price per cord: $225-$300

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