Do you burn wood?” a neighbor asked a few years ago, looking at my chimney. This seemed an odd question, so I laughed it off, answering, “No, just toast.” All the while I was thinking: Of course I burn wood, because that — not hot yoga — is what occurs in fireplaces.
But my friend, it turned out, was prescient, and I was a caveman, crouching by my carcinogenic hearth. I was not yet aware that, in some circles, lighting a Yule log is the equivalent of puffing an unfiltered cigarette.
A fire’s “particulate matter” — PM, to those in the know — can linger at nose level under certain conditions. When inhaled, enough of it can interfere with children’s lung development, exacerbate asthma, depress our immune systems and subject us to myriad diseases. Communities near mountains, where an atmospheric condition called temperature inversion traps smoke in valleys, are particularly susceptible.
This is why, in San Francisco last month, residents were prohibited from lighting fires in their homes or backyards for most of December, even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. If chestnuts got roasted, they were in an oven, because the area’s “Spare the Air” initiative institutes emergency bans on burning when air quality is deemed to be poor.
California is not alone; similar bans have been enacted in Colorado, Utah, and Washington, weakening my own commonwealth’s claim to the title “the nanny state.” Where I live in Massachusetts, cities and towns routinely issue edicts against outdoor burning when dry and windy conditions elevate risk. So far, the long arm of the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t reached down our chimneys to close the dampers permanently. But it’s clear that the clean-air advocates are already perched on our roofs.
With new laws regulating wood stoves and banning many older models, the venerable fireplace should shiver, as should those of us who enjoy its ambient comforts. Once the heart of a home, the hearth is diminishing both in significance and in real numbers. Half of all new homes built do not have a fireplace at all, according to census data, and the number may continue to shrink as regulations regarding fireplaces and wood stoves expand.
Hestia weeps, but the Greek goddess of the hearth was banished from our homes not by regulators but by electricity, and at a cost greater than the monthly utility bill. The hearth used to be a “centripetal force, pulling everything to the center,” says New Hampshire writer Howard Mansfield in his book “Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter.”
Mr. Mansfield laments the familial migration that occurred when we began to derive warmth from floor vents. A fire, after all, drew people to a common room; central heat dispersed them to their bedrooms. “Putting out a campfire that’s burned throughout millennia is such a significant change that we can divide the history of dwelling between Hearth and Post-Hearth,” Mr. Mansfield writes.
Putting that fire out, of course, made our lives easier and our homes cleaner. A fire is, Mr. Mansfield admits, “a big messy beast.” Without constant feeding, the roaring fire dwindles to meek embers that won’t roast a marshmallow, let alone warm a room. In the time it takes to build one, you can drive to Home Depot and return with an electric heater with a credible fake flame — without the particulate matter or the unpleasantness of the next day’s cleanup.
These electric fireplaces are all the rage these days, as is the Yule Log Channel on TV, on Netflix, and now, even on YouTube. Yes, you can watch a fire on a screen while holiday music plays. I’ve always tuned in for sheer comic value, although, for people in San Francisco, it must not seem funny anymore.
But the Yule Log Channel and the abundance of electric fireplaces betray a primordial urge — not to just be warm, but to be warmed by a fire, which offers some strange, bestial comfort. Few of us want to live off the grid, but we do want the right to answer when something ancient calls within.
So, fireside in the Northeast, we send holiday wishes and deepest sympathy to our over-governed compatriots out West — as well as the wisdom of the chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins,” who sings, “Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke, in the whole wide world, there’s no happier bloke.”
Jennifer Graham regularly contributes to the Boston Globe.