Mammoth Fireplaces––To Burn or Not To Burn??

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”    Mark Twain

Sitting around a blazing fire on a frigid night is part of the winter experience here in Mammoth. But the old wood burning fireplaces have once again taken center-stage in Mammoth Real Estate Pain-In-The-Ass Department. Local agents and their buyers and sellers are sorting through the Town’s new ordinance. And just like 23 years ago when the first wood burning related ordinance was enacted; the local real estate agents are the information middlemen; the local wood burning specialists/installers are swamped with inquiries and work; the disposition of the repair work gets negotiated in the sales price; and ultimately the buyer pays one way or another. But the buyer ends up being the beneficiary of the new installation–and the local volunteer fire department, because one less threat of a major fire has been eliminated.

The ordinance in 1990 was all about “particulate emissions.” I sat through hours and hours of public hearings and meetings. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cracked down on Mammoth Lakes because our “dirty” open fireplaces were emitting an excessive amount of particulate matter (known as PM10, or 10 micrometers or less) in the wood smoke. Once those particulates are breathed in, they don’t come out. (And at the time, the equal particulate criminal was the crushed cinders the road crews use on the roads for “abrasion.” That is why the Town aggressively uses the street sweepers to clean up the cinders after snow storms; it is an EPA mandate.) In the 1980’s Mammoth had horrendous episodes of woodsmoke pollution on busy winter weekend nights when there was a temperature inversion. It would be like blue Beijing. And this was before a good percentage of properties had gas heating.

At the same time, wood stove manufacturers were producing new stoves and fireplace inserts that met the EPA emissions standard for particulate emissions of < 6.5 grams per hour. So the new Town ordinance required retrofits “upon sale” of all wood burning appliances and fireplaces to the new “EPA rated” equipment. Because of the “upon sale” requirement, the local real estate agents became the point-men (and women) for the education process. Just one more task to complete in order to earn a commission check. Back in those days there weren’t many cash buyers, so the most common tactic was to negotiate the buyer a credit of $2-3,000 to handle the retrofit. Over the years thousands of retrofits have occurred, and the wood smoke pollution problem has significantly abated. But another BIG problem resulted.

After a series of local structure fires, including some repeats in specific condominium projects, the Mammoth Lakes Fire Department noticed a trend. More investigation proved there was a growing problem. Many of these fireplace insert installations (and NOT freestanding wood stoves) had slow-burning occurring in the wood chases. Literally, interior wood had become live charcoal. They call it “pyrolysis.” It was far worse in some applications and condo projects. And worse in fireplace inserts that had been burned hot and frequently. The biggest problem is that you can’t see it or detect it without pulling the big, heavy firebox out of the original fireplace surround and chase. As more frequent (and near fatal) fires occurred, the MLFD decided they had to do something. So they went to the Town Council and the new fireplace ordinance was passed last summer. This new ordnance applies to approximately 4,000 condos in town and several hundred homes. Many of the condos are in the lower price points including the smaller 1970’s era condos including all of the “Dempsey-built” projects and many of the early 1970-80’s town homes like Snowflower, Snowcreek, etc.

The new ordinance once again requires action “upon sale.” The fines, penalties and liabilities are sufficient to get everybody’s attention. So the real estate agents are again the lead on facilitating the information and negotiation between buyer and seller. The problem now is that complying with the new ordinance is more involved and expensive, although not that much relative to 1990 if we consider inflation and the change in property values (even with the decline since 2008). The “more involved” part is that all of the components from the top of the firebox to the ceiling/roof line have to be inspected. This means demolishing most of the existing fireplace from the floor to ceiling. The local installers are getting creative and working with the Town to comply with the ordinance and trying to keep the price of the installation down. And each fireplace is different.

But the more educated the new owners (and potential new owners) become about the new appliances, and what their options are, the more likely they are to make some really wholesale improvements. After all, this is the fireplace of their mountain home. Rather than just economizing with the cheapest solution (including using the old, dated EPA insert), many are taking the opportunity to make their new fireplace a true centerpiece of the home AND make it a highly utilitarian heating appliance. There are newer and more modern looking inserts and appliances. And they are even more efficient. And ripping out all of the old rock can make a dramatic difference. Some modern stone and drywall does wonders. And local craftsman are making a variety of beautiful mantles to fit every taste. And large flat panel TVs are increasingly finding their way above those mantles (which is a great use of space in smaller condos).

Many owners are considering other options too. Many are moving to pellet stoves in place of the wood burning inserts. In the last year, many of the local reservation companies have moved from being opposed to pellet stoves in their rentals to actually favoring them. They have had to educate their maids, maintenance teams, and renters about the stoves and their operation. But they have become increasingly popular. And  today, bags of pellets are more readily available than ever. Pellets aren’t just “by-product” anymore, they are the primary production of some timber harvesters. For weekend nightly renters, a pellet stove fireplace will provide constant thermostatically controlled heat and warmth and the ambiance of a fire too. All without any real hassle. For longer stays, somebody will have to load another bag of pellets. But the reservation companies are figuring out that their staff can make an appointment to do that too.

Another option to consider is to simply remove the entire fireplace surround all the way to the ceiling and create a new alcove for a freestanding wood burning stove. This might be (or is) the best option for maximum heat. The aesthetics are different, there is no mantle or room for a TV, but for heat, ease of use, and view of the roaring fire, this is tough to beat. And in the age of rising heating costs, every BTU counts.

But all of these improvements can be expensive. Small negotiated credits don’t cover the total cost. So far, we really aren’t seeing credits for the buyer utilized in negotiations and sales. Most of the buyers are shouldering the cost of their new fireplace out of their own pocket. The key for buyers is education. They need to understand the scope of the project. They need to visit and /or talk to the local dealers and get plenty of input and know their options. The new changes can make a dramatic difference in the aesthetics and utility of the property. The Mammoth heating gurus are;  Alpine StoveAngelo’s, and Clean Sweep .

As someone who builds a fire almost every night for 6-7 months, or has one going almost constantly when it is really cold, I can tell you that wood burning has become easier and more efficient all of the time. The newer fire starter squares almost eliminate the need for newspaper and lots of kindling; again, easy and efficient. With ongoing forest thinning in the surrounding area, pine and fir are readily available. Hardwoods like almond and eucalyptus are available from local vendors. All of that makes for hot, lasting and efficient fires. Especially if you have a well set-up modern appliance. And the mess can be kept at a minimum.

Meanwhile, the Town continues with their public information campaign geared at visitors and local residents alike. This brochure is widely distributed to local residents and visitors; Woodburning Do’s and Dont’s.

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