I have built hundreds of fires in my life.  For 12 years we partially heated our house in Illinois with a wood-burning stove, and I have made more than my share of campfires and bonfires.  While we were living in exile in the northern Chicago suburb of Libertyville, Doug and I would drive up to the Richard Bong State Recreation Area on our anniversary in April just so we could make a fire and spend the evening watching flames dance and sparks leap up to the stars till the fire was reduced to orange-red embers.  What is there about a fire circle that draws people close?

I thought I knew everything I needed to know about how to build a fire, but while researching masonry stoves recently I watched a you-tube that showed a different way to make a fire so it would burn from the top down.  And yesterday I came across this radical method again while checking out

If you make fires, check this you-tube out.  This is evidently a very simple way to build a fire.  There are a number of you-tubes illustrating the process, but this one is my favorite.  Evidently an upside down fire is a more clean, efficient way to make a fire which burns hot and smokes as little as possible.

Reducing smoke is a very good idea.  Even though I love that smell, wood smoke is a major source of pollution.  According to the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ very informative website, breathing in a snout full of campfire smoke is much worse than taking a drag on a cigarette.  Tobacco smoke causes damage in the body for approximately 30 seconds after it is inhaled. Wood smoke, however, continues to be chemically active and cause damage to cells in the body for up to 20 minutes, or 40 times longer.

Some of the components in wood smoke are free radicals, which steal electrons from the body, leaving cells unstable or injured. Some of these cells may die, while others may be altered and take on different functions. These changes lead to inflammation, which causes stress on the body. EPA researchers suggest that the lifetime cancer risk from wood stove emissions may be 12 times greater than the lifetime cancer risk from exposure to an equal amount of cigarette smoke. (Rozenberg 2001, What’s in Wood Smoke and Other Emissions).

So try out an upside down fire the next time you strike a match.

Here are a few more tips on burning clean

from the British Columbia Lung Association:

  • Burn small, hot, and controlled fires with good air ventilation;
  • Burn only dry seasoned organic materials;
  • Never burn garbage or prohibited materials such as plastic, treated wood, and tires;
  • Do not burn wet materials such as leaves or branches, as they produce more smoke;
  • Avoid starting fires with diesel or other fuels; and MOST IMPORTANTLY –
  • When campfire time is over, make sure your fire is out!

Have you got any tips to share on how to minimize pollution while enjoying a the crackling warmth of wood?

6 replies

  1. I had seen that technique before but didn’t really appreciate the value of that, thanks for that. We will have to give that a go next time we light our boiler and see if it will work in that too.

    The importance of dry wood though is really key. There have been times we haven’t had a choice because the only available wood was damp, but it makes such a difference to the heat output. After all you are having to heat water first before you get heat into the fire itself.

  2. I sounds like you have plenty of experience with fire, Joanna. I agree that dry wood is always best, if not quite always possible. I’m looking forward to putting this burn technique to the test in the next few weeks.

  3. I have just remembered something that I should probably add to your site for reference. There is a big difference between the different wood burning stoves and where possible it would be better for people to go for the cleaner burning types typically from Scandinavian countries (at least in Europe they are). These systems have what they generally call an airwash system and it means that air enters the system to burn off the gases to prevent tar build up and are also typically about 85% efficient or thereabouts.

    Our wood burning stove has a grate at the bottom with an airflow regulator, but the air flow also enters through holes at the top of the fuel box that then burns the gases off. We have a Norwegian stove but there are lots of different ones, our first wood burning stove was a Mørsø from Denmark and the one we have now is a Nordpies

    • Good point, Joanna.
      It’s been my experience that the wood burning stoves available tend to be designed with more efficiency in mind these days. That’s a good thing. I’ll write more about the stove we are going with when it gets closer to installing it. I think it will be as minimally polluting as possible.

  4. I have seen many novice people who try to burn wet woods, some of them fill the whole stove with woods without letting the air pass space. If you want to burn the woods then you should cut the woods before six month so that get proper time to dry.

    • Thanks for the advice. There is a lot to learn about burning wood efficiently in a wood stove. Doug and I used to heat our house with a wood-burning fireplace inset. It was a quad-level house with a family room in the basement. The heat rose up through the next two levels. We shut the doors of the bedrooms in the top level because we like to sleep cool. We had a Regency then too, and were very pleased with its efficiency and power. We got good advice about how to burn wood most efficiently during those years, and it’s standing us in good stead now.

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