Winter fires in wine country are part of the romance and part of the landscape. There are basically two types of fires here. The first type is the gentle fire in the cottages and B&Bs with spa music playing in the background. The other is just called the burn pile. All year long we throw the flotsam and jetsam from the garden in one place and the burn pile grows until that perfect rainy sort of day when it can all be torched. Our burn pile just disappeared and it was so big it was like the final day of what I imagine Burning Man to be.

And nothing can beat the romance of a crackling fire in a wine country winter evening. A glass of wine staring into the embers is something out of a movie. (Sorry, Spare the Air Days people.) In the winter we forget the tinder dry days of summers and the dangers of one small spark.

But one of my least favorite chores is cleaning out the fireplace in the house. While channeling Cinderella I move the andirons and the grate and sweep out the pit wondering why I have to do it. Building a beautiful fire and getting credit for it is fine, but cleaning up is never an activity that gets credit. If I am cleaning up from last night’s fire it is even worse because everything is still hot. A combination of cajoling, complaining and bribery finally reaped rewards in the form of someone who volunteered to clean out the fireplace with rigor. Finally!

The job requires no training. A brush and a dustpan and a bucket are the only tools required. Just a little judgment is all that’s needed when it comes to disposing of the ashes. And maybe more than a little judgment.

The usual resting spot for said ashes is the garden where they can further decompose. My new conscript took a more efficient route and placed last night’s ashes into one of the big plastic cans provided by the disposal company. No problem. We are ready for another beautiful fire in the fireplace.

Hours later, while outside, I thought I smelled something burning. It wasn’t the pleasant aroma of a wood fire. It was the smell of something that shouldn’t be burning. And there it was, the big plastic garbage can was on fire. It was not smoldering — it was spewing flames 10 feet into the air. I had a sense of a Chernobyl type meltdown. The can was not near the house or any other property that could catch fire. Neither was it handy to any water supply. I connected a series of garden hoses to douse the towering inferno but it was pretty much burnt out.

What was once a heavy trash can with wheels now looked like the Wicked Witch of the West after being doused with water. It has shrunk from being 5 feet tall to 6 inches. And what was left of it was fused to the other big plastic can that had been next to it. I now had what looked like an abstract art project instead of one can for trash and one can for recycling.

We were lucky. Had the can been close to the house or near anything that could burn, the damage could have been catastrophic. It is not only the summer when the fire conditions can be dangerous; there is a third type of winter fire in wine country. The kind that can be very dangerous based on a careless gesture.

I am back to cleaning out the fireplace and disposing of the ashes. It can be a noble job that connects one to the power of nature. I never minded the job anyway.

Rich Moran enjoys all the adventures each season has to offer in wine country.

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