A fireplace kept my immediate family alive during the 2000-2001 ice storm that devestated much of the South. My mom’s house has a ginormous living room–originally designed to be a living room and a garage, but Dad said, “forget the garage”–with a normal fireplace. Eight of us slept there on couches and cots for three days, while the power was out and the ice just kept falling. We cooked on it, brewed coffee, and heated water for washing.
I’ll agree that they aren’t a practical source of heat for everyday living (at least, not the rinky-dink American fireplaces), but they serve well in emergencies (provided that you have wood on-hand.)
You may want to consider a grate on the very top of your chimney. Birds, especially the chimney swift, will nest inside, otherwise. There is some debate on the merits of having the birds live inside your chimney, though. Some feel that their abandoned nests are a fire hazard. Others feel that the cleaning action of the birds’ wings help to reduce the risk of fire. Personally, I find that the constant chirping of the birds–not to mention the god-awful croaking of their young–more than a little annoying.
Occassionally, the birds will get into the house, flying around and giving the cat and the dog a source of nourishing entertainment. Oh, and a snake got into the house once, too. There’s a little trapdoor in the bottom of the fireplace, which leads to a small metal door on the outside of the chimney… it’s for getting rid of ash, though it is too small to be of any real use. The snake slithered his way in through there.
Curiously enough, my mom had a half-grown kitten, once, who learned that trick. She’d put the cat out, and five minutes later, it’d be back inside. Took her forever to figure out that the cat was coming in through the trapdoor.
Often, when a pine dies while the sap is up, the wood takes on excellent fire-starting properties. It’s called “fatty pine” or “pitch wood” or “lighter pine”–get some. Use only a little at a time. Your tinder (I use old newspaper) will readily ignite this wood, which will ignite your kindling (small twigs and sticks), which will, in turn, set your logs on fire.
Be careful using Yellow Osage–it burns hot. A small stick will be sufficient.
Do not use Willow or Mimosa wood–yes, the purple flames are pretty, but the wood pops like a firecracker. It’s dangerous.
As has been mentioned, most softwoods are out, too–their smoke causes excessive creosote, plus, they don’t burn long. I think that the western states have forms of pine or fir that will burn just fine, though. The locals in your area should know.
Have that gas valve and key inspected. Also, don’t overtighten when closing. They’re normally made of brass, and many years of use can wear them down, causing incomplete closing of the valve. My mom’s was 40 years old when she had to have it disconnected. It was mortered directly into the fireplace, so repair would have cost more than it was worth, since we almost never used it.
Use a large round log (unsplit) for your backlog. Mix split wood with small round logs in front. This keeps the wood from “block stacking” (like stacking toy blocks on top of each other), which will suffocate your fire. Your heat source is the bed of glowing coals at the base of the fire, so you want flames coming up around and between the logs–you’re burning the bottoms and the edges of the wood. Round logs burn longer than split ones, at least initially.
There is some danger of the backlog rolling forward, possibly knocking over your screen and falling onto the floor. Make sure that the log is well-seated before building your fire. Check it periodically, as burning firewood tends to shift constantly.
A white Christmas is a wonderful thing, especially when you’re sitting in front of a crackling fire, sipping cocoa, and watching the happy faces of the young’uns. It is tempting to throw the wrapping paper into the fire–hey, it’s just paper, right? Don’t–you’ll catch the whole damn neighborhood on fire.