While a crackling wood fire has a certain Currier & Ives appeal, more and more homeowners are discovering the beauty of what might be called a controlled burn.
That's essentially what people are reaching for when they place a manufactured fire log on the old andirons.
Building a fire, tending it, and cleaning out the fireplace afterward may be the stuff of tradition. For convenience, though, nothing beats a fire built from extruded logs made from sawdust and wax. They are sold by burn time - four-hour logs being the most popular - and leave very little ash at the end.
Convenience obviously sells, judging by the brisk sales of paper-encased fire logs by a variety of retailers. Duraflame, the giant in the industry, estimates that Americans burn 100 million manufactured logs each year.
You've no doubt spied them in the supermarket (where more than half are sold), as well as in home improvement and convenience stores.
"Fire logs are an impulse items; they're not on the grocery list," says Joe Nunes of Pine Mountain Logs, a Toronto-based company with six plants in the US.
They're for people who are looking as much, if not more, for ambience than heat. They are good for home gatherings, romantic evenings, and for breaking the chill, even in California, the top fire-log-consuming state. (Texas is No. 2.)
Sarah Solari of Duraflame says the company finds a "big hole in the top portion of the country" when tracking national sales. That's because people in Montana, the Dakotas, and neighboring states often gather their own firewood or have it delivered. Manufactured logs are generally sold by the box. The average cost of a fire log is about $3.
If the fireplace is well-vented, a half-dozen three-hour logs should provide 18 hours of enjoyment.
Fire logs also come with two- and four-hour burn times, and consumers may also find logs with colored flames and ones that produce the snap and pop of a regular wood fire.
Fire logs are not really new (they date to the '60s), but they've come on strong in recent years with efforts to market their convenience and environmental benefits.
Few products make better use of recycled industrial waste - in this case sawdust and petroleum wax. Using sawdust from wood-manufacturing operations prevents it from being burned for no good purpose or going into landfills.
A study funded by Duraflame also indicates that fire logs can burn far more cleanly than wood, with half the smoke and as much as 69 percent less particulate matter and 88 percent less carbon monoxide.
This doesn't eliminate the need for chimney sweeps, but it does greatly lessen dangerous creosote buildup and generally leaves only a sooty powder in a chimney.
Most brands of fire logs have been approved by the Underwriters Laboratory for use in traditional, open-hearth fireplaces and in zero-clearance, manufactured metal fireplaces. They are not designed as heating products, though, and should not be used in wood stoves or wood-stove fireplace inserts.
Fire-log manufacturers recommend burning only one log at a time, since using more than one can result in a blaze too large or hot for some fireplaces.
Then, too, as a fire log burns, it softens, and piling other fire logs on top could lead to a sudden, unsafe collapse, and also a lessening of burn time.
Since fire logs were never designed or tested for cooking, customers who've read the log wrapper know not to use them to roast chestnuts or toast marshmallows.
The paper wrappers don't disguise the commercial origin of these logs, but they are functional. They make the logs cleaner-handling, virtually bug-proof, and easy to light. The wrapper, in fact, is lit to get the fire started. A fire log should be ablaze within three to five minutes.
The sight, sound, and smell of a natural wood fire is hard to beat, but the stiffest competition fire log makers face in the convenience department may come from gas fireplaces.
With these you can simply turn a fireplace fire on and off, and gas utilities are trying to make them standard equipment in new housing developments.
Fire logs are more natural, so, for now at least, they are attracting legions of fans who still want the charm of an old-time fire, but without the hassle.