WoodSmoke Concerns


Woodsmoke Concerns

My name is Bruce Fessenden, I am the owner of Fessenden Firewood, and I have been selling firewood to customers in the Bay Area for my entire adult life --- about 35 years.  As a longtime firewood dealer I have some perspectives on the public concerns regarding air pollution from wood smoke that are a bit different from what is being mentioned in the newspaper and radio media.

Over the years and decades I've sold to thousands and thousands of households, and to people of all walks of life.  However, if I were to characterize an "average" wood customer, that customer would tend to be a professional.  Many of Fessenden Firewood's customers are doctors, or lawyers, or U.C. Berkeley professors living in the Berkeley hills.  We sell to contractors and engineers that do the big construction jobs in San Francisco, and we sell to some of the older families living in the Pacific Heights region of San Francisco.  We sell to many well known restaurants, like Chez Panisse, and Postrio, and Tommaso's, and in some cases, to the owners of those restaurants.

I mention all this because many of our customers are concerned about the environment.  Many of them are the type that might backpack in the Sierra's, or cross-country ski, or did so in their younger days.  A typical customer of mine might well belong to an environmental group, such as the Sierra Club, and would probably be active in local environmental causes, such as wetlands preservation.  The preferred Sunday or holiday recreation might well be a hike at Point Reyes, or on Mt. Tamalpais, followed by some wine and cheese back home, with family and friends.  If it is fall or winter, the family gathering in the living room might well be around a fire in the fireplace, or woodburning stove.

The point of all this is that many of those who burn wood in their fireplaces or stoves are caring, thoughtful people.  Often they are strongly in favor of environmental causes, sometimes passionately so.  I suppose I have a perception that, in the public eye, those that use firewood are viewed as selfish, austentatious types who drive big SUVs and are generally careless with natural resources.  I guess I feel the need to counter such a perception, as it is completely erroneous.

However, because of all the negative publicity associated with wood smoke, many of our customers do feel like they are "in the wrong" when burning firewood.  I think they feel uncomfortable burning wood, like they are committing a small crime, in plain view of their neighbors.  I feel this way because people have stopped buying wood.  It' is not just from Fessenden Firewood either.  I know the wholesalers that supply the woodyards that are scattered about the Bay Area.  Also I know the owners of those woodyards, and they are saying the same thing that I'm experiencing --- which is that sales are way down this year, even though it's been a cold winter.  If I were to characterize it, I would say that the fireplace user who normally purchases a cord of wood, and burns the wood several nights a week all winter long, that customer today is buying a quarter cord, for use on Thanksgiving and Christmas and Super Bowl Sunday.  This trend has been noticeable for the past several years, but is much more pronounced this year. 

I've been driving around the Berkeley hills, and the El Cerrito hills on some of these cold winter nights, doing my own little informal census on woodburning.  I try to go out on a weekday night, and not on a holiday night or a Sunday night, when fireplace use is more likely.  What I'm finding, on the cold weekday nights that we've been having, is that up here in the North Bay anyway, not many people are burning wood.  Here and there I see wood smoke, but there will be whole neighborhoods where nobody is burning.  And the smoke that is seen may well be from a woodburning stove, which is much cleaner burning than a fireplace.  For those that don't know, cleaner burning means that the stove emits much less particulate matter into the atmosphere.  The great majority of wood stoves sold in the last twenty years have been EPA certified, and they work like the smog control devices on automobiles, where the wood particles are reburned.  EPA certified stoves are much cleaner burning than fireplaces.  The numbers I've seen range from 70% to 95% cleaner.

I felt a little sad as I was driving around, up in the East Bay hills, and engaged in my "woodburning census".  I felt like woodburning, which has been part of everyday life here in California since the Gold Rush, is passing away into history.  Many of my customers are older, and they burn wood because the light and warmth of a fire in the fireplace or stove is cheery, and comforting.  The restaurants we sell to use wood for cooking, but many of the restaurant owners quickly realized there was a real upside to the woodburning stove.  They realized that woodburning adds to the whole restaurant experience.   Often the wood burning oven is strategically placed in the dining room, so that the light and heat from the fire are part of the room, as the warmth of the fire  relaxs the customers, and opens them up.  Conversation seems to flow easier, and real connecting seems more natural and spontaneous. 

I think that there is a bit of this "restaurant effect" with older people. I think that older people like to burn wood, because a wood fire is generous, and supporting.  The warmth and light of a fire fosters connection between people, but also the glowing coals of a fire are great when solitary time is needed.  A fire in the fireplace or stove can be the centerpiece, around which a family can congregate on a cold winter's night.  It seems a shame to do away with all that.  I know that is not exactly what the Air Quality Board is trying to do.  As I understand it, woodburning will only be banned on the stagnant air nights, which for a typical winter would be 15 or 20 nights.  But the publicity swirling around woodburning has been so negative that many have been discouraged from using their fireplace.  Woodburning is being portrayed as the wrong thing to do generally, and as my customers are for the most part good people, they are refraining from burning wood, and not just on the stagnant air nights.  While I understand the reasons behind the publicity, still it seems sad to me, as the peace and comfort that woodburning brings are qualities that this world could really use.  In a mysterious way, a fire in the fireplace or stove is an ideal antidote to the stress of modern life.  Everything seems to be in black and white now, but my hope is that we can reach some sort of middle ground with the air pollution problems associated with wood smoke.

I'm not even sure what points I'm trying to make with this letter.  I'm mostly just trying to paint a true picture of the firewood industry as it currently is, late fall and early winter, 2007-08, from the perspective of an insider.  I've been selling wood for 35 years, and I get the feeling that the Air Quality Board has an inaccurate and distorted view of the firewood business in general.  It seems to me that they are about to establish a new bureaucracy, funded with public money, to address a problem that doesn't really exist.  I'm sure that the Air Quality Board would find my claims to be groundless, but I know that homeowners just aren't buying wood this year, and they didn't last year either.  I think the Air Quality Board is responding to a situation that existed 10 or 15 years ago, when much more wood was being burned in the Bay Area. 

I wonder then, how the actual numbers regarding the severity of air pollution from wood smoke were arrived at.  I think that they might be old numbers, or numbers that were taken on the really cold, stagnant air nights, and in places like the Santa Clara Valley, and the Livermore Valley.  I've lived at Lake Tahoe, and I know how Truckee gets in the wintertime, situated as it is in a basin, and with so many residents using woodburning stoves.  On a cold, still night the air can be thick with woodsmoke in Truckee, as the basin that the town sits in catches the cold air, and holds it.  The Santa Clara Valley is a little bit like Truckee --- situated up against the Santa Cruz Mountains --- and I can see how smoke pollution could get trapped there also, on the cold, still nights.  But even if people were burning, Berkeley or El Cerrito or San Francisco would almost never have a situation like the Santa Clara Valley, because there is always air movement off the ocean.  Then, is it right to ban homeowners who live in Berkeley and San Francisco from using their stoves on the cold, still nights?  Perhaps just those that live in Sunnyvale or San Jose should be banned from woodburning, as it is those areas that will be affected by the wood smoke.

The argument for a Bay Area wide ban on the cold stagnant air nights is that wood smoke from a fireplace in Berkeley or San Francisco, where there is usually air movement because of the close proximity to the ocean, will eventually collect in the basin that is the Santa Clara Valley.  Such an argument would make sense if there was heavy fireplace usage on those cold nights.  But with such a small percentage of households using wood currently, it's hard to imagine that the wood burning from San Francisco will be much of a contributing factor to the air quality in the Santa Clara Valley.  I know that the Air Quality Board is concerned specifically with particulate matter from wood smoke --- little bits of unburned wood I believe --- but what my customers see is the clogged freeways with thousands and thousands of autos, big rigs and buses belching diesel smoke, and the big jet liners roaring overhead.  The pollution from a few fires is paltry compared to all that.  And I'm not using the notion of a "few fires" for dramatic effect here.  It is a fact that households are not buying wood at the same rate that they were just a few years ago, and I'm not talking about a small percentage less.  Sales have really declined,and what it means, in my opinion, is that there is that there is significantly less wood burning than there was a few years ago. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say sales of firewood ( number of cords sold), into the entire Bay Area, is about half what it was fifteen years ago.

There is the possibility that, even though households are no longer buying firewood, they are burning, but with free wood, courtesy of the treecutter  who removed the big pine tree in the back yard, or perhaps from the neighbors' back yard.  Dump fees are sky high right now, and it is much cheaper for that treecutter to just give the wood away, than it would be to haul it to the dump.  I mentioned this scenario at the public forum that the Air Quality Board held on the new laws regulating wood smoke.  The problem with "that backyard tree" is that it is probably either a Monterey Pine or a Eucalyptus, as they are the most common tree in the Bay Area, and both trees are notorious for the amount of pitch they contain.  Compounding the problem is that the treecutter probably only cut the tree into rounds, and the wood doesn't dry out very well unless it's split into smaller pieces.  What all this means is that when the home owner burns the wood, it is probably still somewhat green, as well as being quite pitchy, with the end result being smoke pollution.  Dry hardwoods like oak and almond are much cleaner burning than Monterey Pine, or Eucalyptus ( actually, Eucalyptus probably burns clean if it is dry, but it takes a long time to dry out).  However, in most of the media pronouncements regarding the hazards of wood smoke pollution, this is never mentioned, and it is a major distinction.

I was encouraged that the Air Quality Board had recognized this distinction, and were requiring the woodyards of the Bay Area to sell only well seasoned woods.  What is disappointing for me is that this distinction is never mentioned on the radio, or in the newspapers.  Rather than "spare the air", by not burning firewood on the stagnant air nights, couldn't the media request that the public only burn dry, clean burning hardwoods in EPA certified woodstoves or inserts?  We have the technology to "reburn" wood smoke so that it is cleaner, and I think the public should be encouraged to use that technology if they wish to burn firewood.  It seems that the Air Quality Board is trying to stop the burning of firewood all together, and that seems a bit harsh to me.  I am hoping that some sort of "middle way" can be found.  For instance, heating a home with wood burned in a wood stove is very attractive for some, as well as being cost effective and environmentally friendly.  I think such an approach to home heating should be welcomed by the various public agencies, and not discouraged. I'm not sure that it is a good thing to have natural gas as the only option for heating one's home.  The price of natural gas can fluctuate, and may go up considerably in the future, whereas firewood prices may remain more stable.

I have been an active and enthusiastic climber and skier all my life.  My time in the wilderness has shaped me into the person that I am.  At it's core, climbing is just simply, physical movements done by the entire body, and the work of producing firewood is like that also.  It is just simple, grounding work, the sort that nobody does any more. 

I still climb, and I still ski, and now that I'm middle aged, I've been able to go to Europe, on ski mountaineering trips into the Alps.  It's been a revelation to me how many people use firewood in Europe.  Everywhere I went, I saw firewood neatly stacked, against the side of the houses in the mountain villages, or perhaps alongside a  barn, ready for use.  In some of the villages every single house had a pile of firewood somewhere on the premises.

I wasn't expecting that, and it got me to thinking ... why does firewood "work" in Europe, and not in California?  Environmental fervor, and --- if I may say so --- environmental radicalism --- is just as prevalent in Europe as in California.  Europeans care just as passionately about clean air as we do here in California.  Also,  Europe doesn't have the timber resources that we enjoy here in the United States.  Here in California, often the selling of firewood is a convenient solution to a waste disposal problem, like when an almond orchard is removed in the Central Valley.  In Europe however, any timber product is a precious commodity, yet they still find a way to make firewood work.

I suspect that energy costs are higher over there, so wood heating is more cost effective than here in California. Heating with wood is a "win-win" situation for the Europeans.  Many of the families that live there have been heating with wood for centuries, and for them, the light and warmth that a fire provides is part of the fabric of life. I suppose it would be too strong to say that, for the Europeans, wood fires are a basic necessity, but wood fires at home foster connection and humanity, and would be greatly missed.  It is a testament to the central place that wood heat has for many over there, that the various communities in France and Germany manage their forests so that there is enough firewood for those who want it.

The other point to make is that every household in Europe that burns firewood, uses a stove.  They burn their firewood in a stove, so the heat from the fire will radiate into the household, and not escape up the chimney.  And, of course, so that the pollution from wood smoke will be minimized.  Perhaps it's not a perfect solution, but air quality and quality of life concerns are both served, and in an elegant and well integrated fashion.  Our entire American way of life contributes to air pollution, and to take one relatively insignificant aspect of it and ban that is a piecemeal approach that may not produce the desired results.  There are technological solutions to the problem of wood smoke pollution, and I think that the use of this technology should be encouraged more.  I for one would be sad if the heat and light from a fire disappeared from my life.



                                                                  Bruce Fessenden


© 2010 Bruce Fessenden