When I was growing up I loved fire. I am afraid I still do. I certainly know the downside of fire. It has always been dangerous to life, limb and property. As a child, while playing with my home-made match shooter (an exciting device constructed from two spring clothes-pins), I once accidentally set fire to a wind-brake full of dead and oily Eucalyptus leaves and stored oil-filed smudge pots, and still remember my terror at the result. A couple of years ago the house in Southern California my grandparents lived in and in which my mother and I were born burned down. Southern California, where I lived for many years, is famous for combining “wild” fires with homes (fire is necessary for some of the local plants to release their seeds). And one of the main reasons I left the area in the 1960’s was the air pollution, then caused mainly from non-regulated cars and trucks.
But fire was both comforting and exciting. Our house was heated by a fireplace. My father fortunately arose before the rest of us, and when I awoke in my frigid room, my first act of the day was to grab my clothes and sprint through the house to the fireplace, where I could don them in the warmth of the flames. My grandparents cooked their food on a wood stove, and on cold days my grandmother would happily sit with her feet in the oven and read. And we kids would rake the above-mentioned Eucalyptus leaves into large piles and burn them, breathing in the exotic smell of their smoke and seeing how long we could stand dangerously close to the flames.
On weekends the owner of the local food and hardware store would take us up to the foothills in his truck and we would build a fire and bake weenies and other food. As I grew older I was trusted with the forge and blowtorch and learned the magic of soldering. welding, and working hot metal. When World War II started, a large steel mill was built near to our house, and I was able to go watch the coke being pushed out of the ovens, the blast furnaces tapped, and the molten metal poured into ingots and then rolled into sheets and structural forms. And even smudging the oranges, a necessary but expensive and difficult job, was exciting to me (the photo is of my father in the light of the burning pots). Later I was to become a fanatic back-packer and grew to love open camp fires. While in the Air Force I had the opportunity to experience the fury of afterburners and the majesty of rocket engines. While working in aerospace, I had an opportunity to witness one of the Apollo launches from close-up, certainly one of the largert and most concentrated fires of all time.
But, the age of "open" fire may have peaked after somewhere between 500,000 and a million years of use by us and our predecessors. This is due to vastly increased populations and population density; appreciation of the finite supply of fuels and their value for usages other than burning; increased sensitivity to damage to our environment, and the development of alternate sources of energy.
And our perceived need for safety and controlling fire seems to grow. The county in which I live has increasingly discouraged wood fires because of particulate emissions, beginning with burning leaves, and now neither allowing fireplaces to be built into new houses, nor allowing existing fireplaces to be lit on an increasing number of days. In fact, after a large number of “spare the air” days last winter, I gave up and succumbed to a gas log, even though I once vowed to leave the area if wood fires were outlawed. Gas logs are convenient, and are somewhat reminiscent of a wood fire, but to me not nearly as satisfying. Leaves and trimmings are hauled away to be mulched, and my farmer friends in the valley are sharply constrained by no-burn days and restrictions on such things as stubble burning in the fields, since the air in the California central valley is fast losing its purity. And industry is certainly feeling the need to further control processes involving fire.
Oh well, I do like clean air. And there are always fireworks (for a while), and I still have my oxy-acetylene welding rig.