Can we feel good about firewood?

Sonoma County Gazette, Feb 2015

Scott Salveson
Director, National Firewood Association

The history of firewood is well understood, but there seems to be some confusion about where firewood belongs in our current fuel strategy. Some view firewood as dirtier than coal, others are beginning to see the big picture and hope to shape the future of how firewood may be used moving into a cleaner, more sustainable future.

Where does it come from?

Chances are any firewood you buy for home heating comes from trees harvested less than 100 miles away. Often the distance is much less. It must be asked where propane and heating oil comes from, and what ecological impact is made by transport alone.

Firewood can come from many places. Arborists cut down trees every day and have to pay to dispose of them. Construction crews push trees into piles with bulldozers and burn them. Deadfall litters our forests providing volatile fuel for forest fires. All of this wasted fuel could be used in in a high-efficiency stove.
Firewood that comes from a timber harvest is typically what’s left over after harvesting for lumber – logs sold to sawmills for lumber fetch far more per cord (or rather, board foot) than logs sold to firewood producers.

What about emissions?
There is no denying that particulate emissions are the weak point in any argument for burning anything, solid fuels especially. Recent advances in wood stove design have yielded astounding results, and the EPA rated stoves on the market today can burn smoke and odor-free when properly operated and fueled with dry wood.

Combustion of virtually any fuel results in particulate emissions and C02. Still, we have to compare the entire life of the fuel being burned. With firewood, we have avoided shipping crude oil thousands of miles. We have avoided the refinery. There is no transcontinental pipeline. 

Compare an oil spill to firewood spill, where the firewood can simply be picked up and re-stacked. The environmental impact of each of these things must be considered to achieve a meaningful comparison of other fuels to firewood.

Like a garden, forests benefit from thinning and the threat of forest fires are reduced. How many tons of particulates are emitted from a large fire that may have been contained or prevented with active forest management practices.

Are there enough trees?
There are plenty of trees ready to supply markets where burning firewood makes sense. The last thing we want to suggest is that everyone should switch to firewood. Using firewood for heating fuel does not make sense in urban centers or anywhere wood is not an abundant local resource.

In contrast, there are many areas of the country with such an abundance of wood it is remarkably inexpensive. These areas should be exploring wood for commercial heating applications.

Before shipping wood long distances to market, local markets should be developed and expanded. A boost to the local economy is always welcome.

Firewood’s big bonus
Firewood will heat your home when the power is out. You can “make” your own fuel if you have to or just want to. And the price doesn’t spike when some foreign dignitary says “boo,” a refinery explodes or a pipeline leaks.
Where does your money go?

One overlooked aspect of the firewood trade is that all of your home heating dollars remain in the local economy. Your local oil company feeds a few families too, but not all of them live in your community. Or even in this country.
What’s the catch?

Burning firewood requires effort. It is not for the lazy or absent-minded. The money saved is reflected in the amount of labor and attention required. Most who burn wood consider it an good exercise and even something of a hobby.

The bottom line

There is a place for firewood in under the heading of “alternative fuels” in thinking about our domestic fuel policy. It should be used to its greatest potential where it is most abundant, and burned thoughtfully where it is not.

High-efficiency wood stoves and enthusiastic, well-educated consumers are the key to using this resource most wisely — reducing our carbon footprint while also reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

This article orignially appeared in the Sonoma County Gazette.