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Washington Voices

Dry wood key to making a good fire

Sat., Dec. 17, 2011

This time of year, a cozy fire is the ticket for warming up after being outdoors for a while.

Even though gas fireplaces have become common, there is something about cozying up to a wood fire that can’t be beat: especially if you live in an area that has a lot of extended power outages. A good wood-burning stove or fireplace can be a lifesaver.

Getting a good, hot fire depends on the type of wood you feed it. The amount of heat in burning wood is measured in British thermal units, or BTUs, an international measure of heat potential. The more heat the fire puts out, the higher the BTUs. Different types of wood put out different BTUs for a given volume. In our region, Douglas fir has the highest, followed in order by birch, tamarack and ponderosa pine.

Usually firewood is sold by the cord or the portion of a cord. A cord is a tightly stacked rick of split wood that measures 8 feet long by 4 feet high by 4 feet deep. Dealers may offer it in unsplit rounds, but that means you will have to split it yourself with an ax, maul or a log splitter. Splitting it yourself is hard work, especially if you are beating on pine. You can rent log splitters, but you need a trailer hitch and a level place to work near your pile.

To burn properly, wood needs to be completely dry or seasoned. It takes between six months and a year for freshly cut wood to dry out enough. If you plan to use the wood right away, ask the wood seller if the wood is already dry and check it when the load comes. Dry wood will seem light when you pick up a piece. Cover your pile of dry wood with a tarp to keep it dry.

The price of a cord of wood will vary depending on the season and whether it’s split or in rounds. Split wood will be more expensive. Tamarack and fir tend to be pricier than pine because of their higher BTU output. Wood is generally cheaper in the spring through early summer, but as late summer and fall move in, prices rise. Dealers often charge a delivery fee that will depend on how far you are from their wood lot. In Washington, a firewood dealer is required to give you a receipt that has the seller’s name and contact information and the amount of wood purchased on delivery.

When you burn wood, be careful not to generate too much smoke. Walk outside and check your chimney; there should be very little smoke. Keep the fire hot but small and allow plenty of air into the fireplace. Pay attention to restrictions put into place periodically by the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency. In the winter, air inversions in the atmosphere often trap particulates near the surface. The agency will limit burning to EPA approved devices or ban all burning unless it is your only source of heat.

Pat Munts is a Master Gardener who has gardened the same acre in Spokane Valley for 30 years. She can be reached by email at

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