Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Burnin' Dirt!?

Peat-cutting has been a tradition in Ireland since ancient times.  Historically, the island doesn't have vast stretches of forest and woodland, so wood was difficult to find as a fuel source.  Luckily, much of Ireland's low-lying area is covered with vast stretches of bog lands.  Bogs are a special kind of temperate wetland in which large amounts of plant matter grow quickly, die off, and decay in stagnant, brown water.  These conditions slow the decomposition process, allowing the formation of peat.  

Peat is the partially decomposed and naturally compacted plant material from old bogs.  The peat is cut, literally from the surface of the ground, by hand or machine, dried, and packed for sale.  Where we purchased it, the peat was available in briquettes, highly packed and shaped into uniform pieces.  There are peat sellers who specialize in hand-cut rough shapes, but our most convenient source was the briquettes.

A pack of peat briquettes ready to burn
Peat briquettes
Peat is also sometimes called "turf" by the people who live here, but I have most often just heard, "briquettes."

Peat briquettes are incorrectly stacked
Looks great, right?
Any experienced peat burner will see the above photo and laugh.  When we got home with our peat, I built it up just as if I was burning a wood fire or lighting barbeque charcoal.  I simply, and incorrectly, assumed peat burned and lit just like wood logs.  I made my triangular stack with paper tinder and thought I was ready to go.

We didn't take any more photos of what happened next, but let's all safely assume we learned a lot about the behavior of peat.  The blocks are extremely dense, feeling much heavier than they look.  When I tried to light the above pile, the paper was burned out and the peat pieces were merely beginning to char.  After more and more (and more) paper, I finally got the pieces burning, but slowly.  I again made a rookie peat burning mistake by poking the pile to open up more airflow.  Sadly, this extinguished the flames and brought the briquettes to a very smoky smolder.

I finally gave up on getting it burning with what we had on hand, so I did what I should have done an hour earlier- left it alone.  I thought it would just smolder out, but when sitting still, the flames were able to build some momentum and actually burned pretty well.  Sadly, we had to open a window to let smoke out and cold air in, so we didn't get much heat from our fire.

Doing some research, it appears peat is most easily lit with fire-starter blocks because it is so dense and needs long contact from flame to get burning.  Lesson learned.  I do like the low cost and slow burn of peat as a way to save fuel.  Hopefully I'll get better at the skill involved so we can experience the full benefit of an Irish turf fire on a cold night.

[Update:  I have since learned the proper stacking technique to get a turf fire going without using store-bought firestarters, thank you very much!]

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