What a shock to get up and discover a blackened, ashy piece of wood lying on the floor in front of the wood stove. A piece that has obviously been on fire fairly vigorously in the night while I was asleep.
Lucky for me that the wood burned out instead of flaring up to catch on nearby kindling and newspaper and set the house on fire. Like those heart pounding near misses we survive when driving, the universe provides periodic frights to make us wake up and pay attention.
I had been getting careless with fire.
My trusty wood stove, which heats the house all winter, is airtight, modern, insurance approved, low emission and so safely designed I can put my hand flat on its cool back metal when the logs inside are roaring. The pipes are clean, the chimney lined, the chimney top netted to keep silly birds from falling in and incinerating themselves. I have smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, fire extinguishers and even a long hose hooked to the water system.
But I don’t have a safety check on my own behaviour.
Fire, friend of humans since we first figured out it could roast mammoth haunch and warm a cave, lies ever treacherously in wait to devour all our substance and us too. It only needs the tiniest opportunity; a tossed cigarette butt, a frayed electrical wire, a jammed toaster, a match not quite out to rise up from its domestic docility and swallow us whole. The California wildfires graphically reveal the raging hunger latent inside each tame looking spark.
Since my stove is in an unfinished basement, sitting on bare concrete, I don’t feel the need for tidiness that would be called for by, say a white shag rug and a spotlessly gleaming living room. I chop kindling on a block beside the stove, an enjoyable activity that induces a state of zen like tranquility.
Chopping kindling creates wood chips. Chips that accumulate just below the stove and scatter across the floor. Next to the stove is my basket of kindling along with matches and newspapers. Beside that, should the floor fire have got going, is about a cord of very dry firewood stacked to the ceiling so I won’t have to resort to the outdoor woodpile until after the New Year.
The wood was probably ignited by some tiny small spark that escaped attention when the stove door was open. Those flying little glows are hard to spot and seem to die out in moments.
Some do. Others don’t.
Embers can have a deceptively long life inside a blackened coal. Early folk carried embers for hours, hot enough start the next campfire. In our automatically heated comfort, people are forgetting how to live with our ancestral partner, open flame. Some folks in town, for instance, nonchalantly tossed out warm ashes in a plastic bag and set the whole back of their building ablaze.
My bit of wood burned cleanly enough and small enough not to set off the touchy smoke alarm near the stove. The wood chips I left around kindly did not ignite. I got off with a stiff warning to smarten up if I don’t want to be incinerated in my bed.
Point taken. The chips have been swept up and flammables moved beyond reach of stray sparks. The best safeguards do not protect against human stupidity. I’ll try to stay out of the stupid category at least until the stove goes cold in the spring.