Firewood anxiety

We’re almost out of firewood.

We have a woodstove in the living room, and enjoy that toasty feeling when the house is heated with wood. Even our cat luxuriates in the sort of radiant heat only a woodstove can provide. But can it last all winter? read on.

When I started considering the purchase of an electric vehicle (EV) last summer, I learned about the concept of “range anxiety”, that is, the concern about driving an EV beyond its battery range… especially in northern New England, where charging stations are few and far between. So a variant of this new term occurred to me last week when I went to the garage to fetch more wood: firewood anxiety: the sense that we might run out of firewood before the winter is over.

In mid-February, it seemed like we have only a few bundles left from what was once a 6-foot-high, two-layer deep stack of firewood… and yet we won’t be finished with heating season until late April at best. This situation seems to arise every year, but we’ve never yet run out of firewood. There are at least two reasons: 1) we adapt our consumption, reducing usage as firewood becomes scarce; 2) we don’t build fires when the temps are above 20ºF, and such conditions become more common in late February and March.

But all of this misses the point. We do not depend on wood for heat; we use wood heat as a supplement, and enhancement, of our home’s underlying propane heating system. We use wood to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and because we enjoy the cozy atmosphere it provides.

There are plenty of people in New England, however, who do depend on wood as their sole source of heat, and for whom a shrinking woodpile is actually a dire predicament. This life-and-death situation is not a unique challenge, as documented in a recent NYT article about ‘wood banks’ that are popping up around the region. Like food banks that assist people enduring food insecurity, wood banks provide free firewood to people enduring fuel insecurity.

Our little town of Lyme operates a food bank; we may not have a wood bank, but we do have a long-running local group that cuts, splits, and delivers wood to Lyme families in need. It’s a great group of guys who gather on the occasional Saturday with their axes and chainsaws and spend the morning turning a pile of donated timber into firewood; I’ve had the honor to join them a few times. Similarly, when I was in central Vermont last week chatting with a crusty old Vermonter who’d done a bit of everything for the past fifty years – plowing driveways, towing vehicles, fighting fires, maintaining tractors – he told me about several recent trips to bring a cord of firewood here, a half cord there, to families who were down to a single wheelbarrow of wood left and wondering how they’d get through one more night of Vermont winter. It’s what small-town people do for each other.

So, even if you don’t own a chainsaw, take a moment to think about the many people who depend on firewood to heat their home. Donate to a local fuel-assistance program, help out at a local woodbank, or (if you’re up to it) split some firewood. Let’s keep people warm this winter.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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