Fire makes a dandy servant and a wicked master. But fire in the home, farm or homestead will only become your master if someone in your household is careless. As my college suite mate told me: “Being careful means being full of care.” That one sentence changed my entire approach to life, for the better.
Hopefully, everyone in your family and on the farm holds a similar safety view. That mindset is one of the keys to fire safety. Fortunately, many sources for learning how to be safe, such as Red Cross, exist, so I’ll leave you to them. Let’s then focus on the fun parts of managing fire at home and on the farm.
Once ignited, oak burns long and slow and puts out very little creosote. That’s what you want for wood heat in a fireplace or wood stove. Other trees comparable to oak include hickory, maple, beech and other hardwoods. But any tree that drops its leaves in winter—the functional definition of hardwoods—will burn well, if not as long, as oak.
In the backyard of my first home, I dropped all the bubblegum-pink crepe myrtles and all the young pecan trees for my woodstove and opened space for a bigger garden. I gained heat, sunlight and muscle all in the same project.
Evergreen trees such as pines and cedars—also called coniferous trees or softwoods—will burn but shouldn’t be used in a wood stove or fireplace. They’ll line your chimney with creosote that will eventually burn inside the upper part of your flue and could catch your house on fire. Evergreen logs and branches, however, can be used safely in a firepit.
Other sources of pine wood for firepits are wood scraps from construction sites—except for pressure-treated wood, which is full of chemicals that shouldn’t get in the air or water. Also, the many pallets that otherwise would be dumped at the landfill can be repurposed and used in firepits. Underground, they’ll slowly decompose and give off methane gas which is many times worse than carbon dioxide for causing climate disruption. It’s better for the environment if pine pallets that can’t be repurposed—for one of my Hentopia chicken coop designs, for example—should be burned for heat rather than dumped.
You may be able to get your hands on pallets made from heavy oak at stone yards. These pallets hold heavier loads of flagstone. The wood is already seasoned and free. If you can get a few of these pallets, stack them evenly, drop a chainsaw through them at a spot where you won’t hit any nails, and reduce them to chunks that will fit in your wood stove or fireplace.
Kinds of Kindling
To get your oak—or other hardwood—logs burning requires a good fistful or two of kindling. For kindling you’ll want to use softwoods—aka evergreens—such as pine. Softwoods have oils in them that burn hot and fast compared to hardwoods such as oak that burn long and slow. Fallen pine branches can be broken up or pine logs can be split into slender pieces roughly the size of a carpenter’s pencil or a big carrot.
Most scraps from construction sites are pine and can be easily split into sizes good for kindling. In other words, kindling is the intermediate step between fire starters and firewood.
You could spend a bunch of money buying the chemical-loaded fire starters that are sold in catalogs. Or you could just divert items from your garbage, recycling containers or farm refuse piles for free fire starters.
Scraps of cardboard ignite easily and now that we buy so much online, I’m sure you have a stockpile handy. Pizza boxes also fit that bill, plus any fat drippings in there will provide an excellent accelerant.
If you’re not re-using paperboard egg cartons for your own farm eggs, they catch fire easily and get plenty hot enough to ignite kindling. Dryer lint has a place as a fire starter as well, especially if you only wear cotton clothes. If you run lots of polyester (basically plastic) clothes through your dryer, better to just trash your dryer lint as burning plastic just creates pollution.
Even stale tortilla chips have enough oil in them to ignite and inflame your kindling.
Newspaper is the classic home fire-starter. Local newspapers also play an important role in sustaining democracy and supporting small local businesses. So don’t forgo a subscription! And just think how satisfying it will be to burn up those editorials that you disagree with.
The great outdoors around the farm also supplies free fire starters. Pine needles contain flammable oils. Other dried-out evergreen fronds—even spent Christmas trees—easily ignite. Culinary herbs such as rosemary, lavender, oregano and others all benefit from a springtime pruning to maintain their figure. Their fragrances and flavors come from oils that will ignite readily.
Stash any of these outdoor clippings in a container that keeps them dry and safe from sparks. Use them indoors or out to get your kindling going.
Once the fire has burned down and cooled, your fireplace, wood stove or firepit will have valuable materials left over that can be repurposed to, in some cases, save money.
Any chunks of charcoal, I scoop up and toss in the compost bin. That’s what stone age people of South America did and today we call it biochar. The microscopic hollow spaces inside charcoal make great homes for beneficial microbes.
Toss them in the compost bin so that when the compost gets added to the garden the nutrients and microbes stored in the charcoal will benefit the garden. The charcoal also absorbs and holds water.
Any ash left over that has cooled can be set aside and used as a substitute for store-bought lime. I apply firewood ash every year to the vegetable garden and the herb garden to keep the pH high.
I burn pallets, so I use a magnet caddy to easily gather up the nails after the fire has cooled. That’s a carpenter’s tool for gathering fallen nails on a job site. It’s on wheels, has a long handle and a lever that disengages the magnet so you can drop all the picked-up nails into a bucket or nursery pot.
Once or twice a year I take all my metal scraps to a scrap yard to sell, then buy cool bits of metal for neat trellises and other projects and grab lunch at a nearby BBQ joint. It’s important to have fun little rituals like that as part of sustaining a happy homestead. And what better rituals are there than safely keeping the home fires burning?
Home Fire Safety
One day, I looked at our home fire extinguisher and wondered if buying the cheapest one had been a dumb idea. I found a local vendor and bought two much better extinguishers: one for the kitchen and one near the wood stove.
They weigh about 10 pounds each and cost about $70 apiece. I felt a lot better.
But I didn’t want the old cheap-as-heck extinguisher to go to waste. So when our teenage niece came to visit, I figured it was a good time for us all to practice putting out fires. We took the cheap, 2-pound extinguisher outside, learned how to pull the pin on it, aim at the bottom of the fire (or at the bottom of a tree in this practice session) and spray side-to-side for a few seconds each.
It was fun, exciting, educational and timely.
About a month after our niece had returned home, a knocked-over candle set her family’s tablecloth on fire. She was the only one with the presence of mind—and the experience—to use the extinguisher effectively and put out the fire.
If you’re doing something with fire outside, have a hose nearby with the spigot already turned on. Outdoor fires can also be put out with a blanket or with a shovel and a pile of dirt—anything that will deprive the fire of air. But indoors, you’ll want an ABC-type extinguisher that can handle every type of household fire.
And get something in the 8- to 10-pound range that will last long enough to put out common fires. Learn more about home fire safety the Red Cross site.
This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.