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Light My Fire

By Tina Traster

January 8, 2009 -- THREE years ago, a massive brick fireplace and nearly an acre of woods sold me on an 1850s farmhouse that was pretty much a teardown. The fireplace, which needed paint and some tiling, was the only functioning appliance in the house.

But during the winters, I realized that our romantic fire-lit hearth was sucking hot air out of our house. Who knew a traditional fireplace was an energy thief?

And so, in early fall, we invested in a Scandinavian Jotul cast-iron furnace. The pricey purchase - about $4,000 - launched grandiose thoughts of greenness: We will heat our house by wood alone!

The handsome, matte-black stove is supposed to heat 1,300 square feet - enough coverage to warm the downstairs of our house, and presumably the upstairs because heat rises.

Come October, I was ready to put it to work - our house easily gets cold despite triple-pane windows, weather stripping and brand-new insulation. But I soon learned that a fireplace insert - like my young child, my cats and my freelance career - needs constant care and attention.

We started with a half-cord of seasoned wood - the same amount we've used every winter. My husband left a hefty pile of wood for me by the fireplace each morning and told me I would have to tend to it. He wasn't kidding.

Fifteen minutes after I sit down at my desk to start my day, I get up to see the fire. It's dwindling, so I add wood, open the door to let in more oxygen, close it to let the logs ignite, wait and then poke the logs to make sure they're not smothering the fire. Then I repeat this ritual - a thousand times a day.

I'm on the phone back at my desk. Pavlovian chest-tightening starts to occur. I know if the fire goes out, it will be impossible to rekindle the charred logs with a match. I'd have to scrape out the dead wood and ash and start with kindling anew.

So I wrap up my call and sprint to the fireplace. Whew, just in time. I toss on two more logs.

I chart the temperature on the house thermostat. The temperature rises by one degree for every three to four hours the fire burns. I take note of how many match-strikes it takes to start a fire, how many logs we're using each day, how the temperature upstairs compares to downstairs.

People tell me I need to get out more. Get real, I say. I've got a fire to tend.

We were pleased when the October gas/electric bill arrived. We used 25 percent less gas this year compared to last year.

The days have started to get brisker. Because the last fire of our day withers about 11 p.m., the house is cold by the morning.

"Let's turn the heat on for just an hour or so while we shower and get dressed," I squeak meekly, unable to come out from under the down blanket.

"C'mon," my husband says. "We're on a mission here. Put on an extra sweater."

Instead, I turn on the heat until he lights the day's fire.

From this point, our purist dreams start to go rogue. First, we have depleted our woodpile within six weeks. Though we have trees and my husband likes to wear his red-and-plaid jacket and chop wood, we need at least a cord. That costs $200.

Then the new wood won't catch easily. We take turns, both stubbornly unwilling to admit we can't get the fire going. After days of striking matches to no avail, I drive over to the A&P and buy fire-starters: $11 for 26 logs.

It stings when I pay the clerk, but I can't wait to get back home, turn down the thermostat and light my fire.

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