Will There Be Enough Firewood?

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Learn to burn - Fearful of Y2K power failures, folks are asking: Will there be enough firewood?

By Jim Quinn/Knight Ridder

In the supply-and-demand business of firewood, Stoddard Lumber Co. has a little problem: Not enough supply, too much demand.

The St. Anthony lumber company buys "timber sales," forested areas earmarked for timber, every year. Most of the trees are harvested for lumber, but usually there are a few dead trees here and there that can be sold as firewood.

But this year, as demand for firewood is driven to new heights by fears of Y2K power outages, the company has found that nearly all the trees are too healthy to be sold as firewood. That's good for the lumber business, but not so good for the firewood business, said Jim Willmore, co-owner of the company.

Willmore said he gets 10 or 15 calls a day - well above average - from customers looking for firewood, but he can't meet the increased demand.

"I can't meet the regular demand," he said. "I can't meet any demand. We probably could have sold a hundred semi loads this year."

Across the country, demand for firewood is reaching record levels as people prepare for the possibility of massive power outages at midnight on New Year's Eve. Power company officials say it won't happen, but people aren't taking any chances.

"It's this Y2K thing," said John Gamauf, who supplies firewood to customers in northern Ohio. "I've been swamped by people panicked on Y2K. I know I'm not going to get any time off for the next four months."

This year has been extra-busy, with Gamauf's customers placing orders for enough extra wood to keep them warm if Y2K-related disruptions shut down their home furnaces. "People have been saying, 'Johnny, double my order,' " Gamauf says.

"It's going to be a long season."

Usually, the firewood season doesn't really get started until Sept. 1, says Scott Graf of Akron, Ohio. "If there is a big demand for Y2K, I'm sure the suppliers can gear up and handle it," he says. He predicts there'll be increased demand for wood nationally if any section of the country suffers from power failures.

The long rows of stacked firewood at Graf's garden center represent the amount he expects to sell this season. Typically, customers come in to buy wood any time a major storm is forecast, he says: "If people think they might be snowbound, they want to be sure they can enjoy a fire."

Graf's sister Lisa Graf says she grew to appreciate her customers' desire for seasoned firewood one year ago, when she purchased a home with three fireplaces. "It gives me something to look forward to when the weather gets cold," she says. She predicts that the increased popularity of patio fireplaces will boost demand for firewood further.

She recommends that people who want to use their fireplaces during power failures remember that most fireplaces aren't efficient sources of heat; fireplace inserts or free-standing stoves work better, she says. She also suggests that people buy popcorn poppers, toasters and other utensils that allow them to cook over an open fire. Such activities look like fun, she says, adding that they might make it a lot easier to endure a power failure.

Gamauf says he usually tries to encourage people to order their firewood early by offering a discount. No such encouragement was necessary this year. Gamauf received a flood of orders from customers who wanted to make sure their firewood was ordered early. Although he doubts Y2K will cause any serious problems, the idea of stocking up early does make sense, he says.

Power failures are a fact of life, whether they are triggered by Y2K or not. People looking for a low-tech answer to the high-tech Y2K problem can't beat firewood, according to Gamauf. "If you get a power failure that lasts a couple of days, it might get cold enough in your house to cause your pipes to freeze, and there goes your drywall," he says. "A fire might not keep your whole house comfortable, but it will keep things warm enough to keep your pipes from freezing."

Although he typically sells perhaps 500,000 cubic feet of wood each year, Gamauf expects to sell as much as 700,000 cubic feet this year.

That means a lot of work now, but Gamauf is philosophical about it. "I figure next year will be slow because everybody is overbuying now," he says.

Very few people heat their homes with wood these days. "It's strictly recreational," he says. Although a lot of his customers own wood-burning stoves or special fireplaces adapted to make them efficient heat sources, Gamauf believes that most of his wood is burned in old-fashioned, inefficient fireplaces that remove more heat from a house than the fire produces.

Gamauf advises homeowners to make sure the wood they buy is dry enough to burn. Wood harvested in the spring should be dry enough by fall, he says, adding that summer wood will be too wet. Seasoned logs will be marked by deep cracks on the end.

Be skeptical about wood sold by weight, he says, noting that seasoned wood weighs as much as 30 percent less than green wood.

A cord, which equals 128 cubic feet, is enough to make a pile 4 feet high, 4 feet wide and 8 feet long. That's more wood than will fit in the back of a pickup truck, and it's probably twice as much wood as most people burn in a typical winter.

Although Gamauf and other dealers will deliver wood, stacking is usually the customer's job. Don't try to stack it all at once, he advises.

"People will order a cord or two, and when they try to stack it they'll hurt their back," says Gamauf, who suggests that customers consider placing two small orders instead of one large one.

The increased popularity of gas logs doesn't worry Gamauf much. Gas fireplaces are especially popular in new construction, attracting home buyers who like the low maintenance, the absence of ashes and the elimination of the need to buy firewood.

Gamauf doubts that gas logs will ever completely replace traditional fireplaces. "Some of my customers are taking out their gas logs," he says. "They like them for a while, but then they miss the nice fire you can get only with wood. I think you'll see people who have a gas fireplace in the upstairs bedroom, but a wood fireplace in the living room."

He has only one regret about the time he's devoted to this business. "My hearing isn't what it used to be," he says. "Most people know they've got to let the telephone ring a few extra times when they call me." He says his years of exposure to heavy equipment are to blame, along with his own bad habits.

"When I was young, I didn't use ear protectors. I was Mr. Macho. It's my own fault. I wouldn't listen to the old dogs, and now I'm paying for it."


-- Lynn Ratcliffe (mcgrew@ntr.net), October 27, 1999


Over the past 12 months, we've taken delivery on about 10 cord. Wood prices in Iowa (seasoned and split) are up about $10-$20 per pick-up load (~1/2 cord) over the price last year. Makes me very glad we addressed this before the prices went up.

In any event, we love our wood stove. Yes, it's definitely a lot more work than gas/electric. But there's something wonderful about a toasty warm fire on a cold Iowa night. We fired up the stove for the first time this season on Friday night. Kept a fire going all weekend.

I sincerely hope that our wood usage remains...uh...recreational, but it's good to know that we could depend on it for heat as well. This is one investment in preparedness that will be appreciated regardless of the outcome of Y2K.

-- Arnie Rimmer (Arnie_Rimmer@usa.net), October 27, 1999.

You only lose heat from your house if your house is warmer than ambient temperature. If it's -20 outside AND in, the fireplace, inefficient as it is, will help.

-- Spidey (in@jam.sdf), October 27, 1999.

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