A Morning Fire

by Karen Topakian

 A daily occurrence of yesteryear. Not today at 51 Oakwood Street. 

When we arrived home very late last night from our Christmas trip Back East, the igniter on our furnace had burned itself out. Probably partying and carrying on in our absence. Leaving us…cold.

Despite Peg’s best efforts to revive it, she declared it a goner.

Before leaving for work, she lit a fire in our fireplace, so we could enjoy our breakfast and the morning warmed by the burning logs. We didn’t need the fire to cook. Nor to heat hot water. Or to fuel the all important washer and dryer. We were simply without heat.

Our brick fireplace sits in the middle of the second floor providing plenty of warmth for the living room, kitchen and dining room. But none for the downstairs where we sleep and shower and I write. So here I sit, writing at the dining room table, while the golden embers and shooting flames dance over my left shoulder.

This is a temporary condition at best. The repairperson should be arriving between 9 and 11 this morning.*

However, in many parts of the world heating by wood occurs daily. Not as a quaint, cozy experience. But as a necessity. And a dangerous one at that.

According to the “State of the World’s Forests 2005,” a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (UN/FAO) of the United Nations, “Wood energy remains the most important source of energy for more than two billion people in developing countries.”

Traditionally, women gather wood to build cooking fires. A perilous and arduous journey for women and girls often through dangerous war torn regions where they may incur injuries and violence en route.

Peg and I gathered wood, too but only from the neatly stacked pile below the staircase.

The World Bank says that, “Heating by wood, translates to deforestation, since 76 percent of the wood cut in developing countries is used for cooking and heating fuel.”

WomenWatch, a United Nations website for information and resources on gender equality and empowerment of women, says that with the growth of desertification and deforestation, “…women and girls have to walk longer distances to collect water and firewood, which further limits the time they can devote to school and income-generating activities.” Furthermore, they can carry up to 20 to 38 kg (44 to 83 pounds), walking five to ten kilometers a day (three to six miles).

Once they have collected the wood, women make fires often in doors, which often do not burn efficiently leading to respiratory problems for them and their families as well as causing burns and other fire related injuries.

As if these problems weren’t enough cause for concern…

In a recent New Yorker article, titled, “Hearth Surgery,” the author Burkhard Bilger states that, “As global temperatures have risen, the smoke from Third World kitchens as been upgraded from a local to a universal threat. The average cooking fire produces about as much carbon dioxide as a car, and a great deal more soot, or black carbon – a substance seven hundred times as warming. Black carbon absorbs sunlight. A single gram warms the atmosphere as much as a 1500-watt space heater running for a week. Given that cooking fires each release one or two thousand grams of soot in a year and that three billion people rely on them, cleaning up those emissions may be the fastest, cheapest way to cool the planet.”

And finally, the UN/FAO report says that, “Wood energy is also likely to gain in popularity in developed countries over the next 20 years as part of efforts to promote the use of renewable energy.”

When seen in the light of this information, all fires adopt a sinister glow.

*by 10 a.m. the furnace was working and our fire was out.

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