On Capitol Hill, most people consider a good day’s work to be one in which they put out fires. But for Danny Kim, the goal is quite the opposite.
Kim, 36, officially works as a chamber security guard with the Office of the House Sergeant at Arms, but his unofficial job for the past six years has been to build fires in the Speaker’s Lobby on cold days when the House is in session.
Members, staff, and reporters who pack the long hall during votes have come to expect the warmth, glow, and crackle of the fires—built on both the Republican and Democratic sides of the lobby—but the hearths that host them had long sat empty.
Kim said he patrolled the perimeter of the House chamber for six years before he asked a staffer if the fireplaces were functional.
“I said, ‘I think we can start a fire here,’ and I got a match out to see if the smoke would go up [the chimney],” Kim said, “And it turns out, it’s an open fireplace.”
Soon members started chiming in on the conversation, and Kim learned that in order to build a fire, he would need to be asked by a member of Congress. Luckily, Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., then in his 70s, told Kim he’d like a fire built on every cold day when the House votes.
Young, who chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, frequently does business in the leather chairs surrounding the Republican fire, according to his spokesman, Harry Glenn.
“He enjoys the fires and other members do, too. It’s a good chance for the members to sit around the fire and work together. It’s a good chance for them to exchange ideas and information,” Glenn said.
Kim says the fires do more than warm; they have a calming effect.
“There’s something magical about a fire, the smell; it almost puts you in a trance looking at it,” Kim said. “If you’re really cold and you get next to a fire and you see the flames and the heat comes, it’s extremely calming. That’s why I like it.”
He first discovered that magic growing up in Virginia, near Mount Vernon, in a home with two fireplaces, but with a dad who didn’t like to go through the hassle of putting them to use. Kim volunteered and taught himself how to find good wood, place the logs, and add kindling to make a good fire.
Now, on voting days in the Speaker’s Lobby, Kim begins the ritual with a fresh batch of dry wood delivered from the speaker’s office. He places two logs about a half inch apart, then adds two more logs in an X across the base. Next, he tops the pile with a few more smaller logs spaced a few inches apart, crumbles newspaper for kindling (whatever pages he thinks no one will read), lights the paper, and watches the fire come to life.
At home, Kim has a wood-burning stove and a fire pit in his backyard, where he has taught his sons, 10 and 6, how to build fires with wood they collect from their yard. His 3-year-old daughter is too young to learn, Kim said, but she holds onto his wrist when he lights the wood and says, “Daddy, I do it with you.”
Though Kim builds a fire every chance he gets during the winter months, he is strict about fire safety.
“I teach [my kids], you build fires only in fireplaces,” Kim said.
And the easiest place to build a fire, according to Kim, is in the House of Representatives—where the chimneys are the highest he’s ever seen.
This article appears in the Dec. 11, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily as Fire Starter.