Wood, fire, heat, and smoke

Summers here in the arid West are punctuated by smoky stretches that can last days or even weeks. No one likes the smoky skies and no one wants to breathe the polluted air.

And yes, wildfire smoke is a pollutant. Perhaps I should say it contains many long-recognized polluting chemicals. You’ve heard of them: carbon monoxide, benzene, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, dioxins, formaldehyde, etc. Add in the particulates, especially the small ones (less than 2.5 microns), and weird stuff like mold spores, and you have a nasty brew that is NOT good to breathe.

Now that autumnal weather is here and winter is approaching temperatures are dropping and the heaters are coming on.

That means more wood smoke. It’s almost de rigueur in the rural West to heat your home with wood. It’s a rite of passage to, at the very least, split and stack firewood every fall. Some folks go out and get their own from the vast quantities available in our nearby National Forests. But the majority of people with wood stoves get their fuel delivered. Split, seasoned firewood is sold by the cord (a stack four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long) in various lengths (usually 12 to 18 inches). A good quality cord of hardwood like oak can set you back well over two hundred dollars.

There’s nothing quite as satisfying on a cold winter day than a roaring wood fire. The radiant, penetrating heat put out by a wood stove cannot be replicated by more modern heat sources.

But it comes at a cost. Wood is messy. It takes a lot of time and energy to maintain a fire and keep a home heated. The fuel quality varies greatly, as does availability. Wood piles are sources of insect infestations and potential fire hazards. Creosotes, which are by-products of wood combustion, build up in chimneys which require frequent cleaning to reduce the additional hazard of flue fires.

In our home we have both electric heat (via heat exchangers) and a fuel oil furnace. We don’t have natural gas here in Siskiyou County because the pipeline is too far to the east of us and thus we don’t enjoy the benefits of that energy source. We do have town gas (a propane mixture) that runs on an antiquated underground system, but we un-installed that in our home due to its high cost. Bottled gas like propane can run heaters but can’t compete with kerosene-type fuels for efficiency.

As a result we almost never use the wood stove to heat the house any more. We are glad to have it in case there is a power outage (very rare here) in the depths of winter. But the time, effort, and mess associated with a wood fire can’t compete with the ease and convenience of a modern system that one can “set and forget.”

One of the problems with wood heat is that it is almost impossible to regulate. Wood should be burned hot, and completely, in order to reduce emissions. But folks who want a fire in the morning “damp down” their stoves at night, that is, reduce the air intake so that the logs smolder and burn slowly. That keeps them from being consumed and keeps the fire from going out which makes it easier to re-start. This of course is terribly polluting. And it is a matter of guesswork as it depends on how well-seasoned the logs are, the type of wood, the size of the stove, the drop in night-time temperature, even the relative humidity and the outside barometric pressure. Everyone with a wood stove knows the particular quirks of their situation. I’ve been in wood-heated homes when the output of the stove was so ferocious that doors and windows were left open so the heat could escape! That happens sometimes when you get a big fire going—it heats the stove up so much that the box will continue to radiate even as the fire wanes in intensity.

Like all things, wood heat is a trade-off. Many folks appreciate that wood is abundant locally and can be a cost-effective (if you don’t consider the labor costs) alternative to fuel oil and/or electric heat. Many older houses don’t have another heat source. Lots of mountain municipalities regulate wood-burning due to the pollution but have exemptions for low-income people and homes without other options. Wintertime atmospheric inversions are very common in alpine regions and the valleys and basins which hold the bulk of the population can get as polluted from wood smoke as any diesel truck- and passenger car-choked urban area.

And there’s the rub. Because wood smoke, be it from wildfires or hearth fires, is natural, it is not always perceived as a hazard.

That’s nonsense, of course. A poison, be it made by the Hand of God or the Hand of Man, is still a poison. Our ancestors harnessed the fire from wood. Then they harnessed the fire from peat and coal. Then oil and gas. And now we harness fire from the atom.

All of those fires are both good and bad. There is no pure, perfect, “natural” fire. They all come with costs along with the benefits.

I’m looking forward to winter, I always do. I like the cold weather and the opportunities to go skiing and even perhaps do some snow-shoeing. But I can’t say I’m going to enjoy all the seasonal wood smoke. It was easier when the summers weren’t so bad. Now we breathe that stuff all year!

Lots of active weather patterns with frequent storms will be good. Those will keep the air moving and well-mixed and help the pollutants disperse. The crisp, clean mountain air, especially on a brisk January day, is one the best things about living here. Let’s hope we get lots of days like that.

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