Inflation may be going down in the US, dropping to 6.5% from last month’s 7.1%, but the cost of keeping a home warm this winter is still on the rise. The average gas bill will increase by 28% this winter compared to last, according to estimates from the Energy Information Administration.
In some places across the country, people are returning to a surprising source of heat to keep costs down: wood. In areas where wood is more widely available and used for heating – such as forested parts of New England – wood banks are emerging as a vital way to stay warm this winter.
“You don’t know what you’re gonna do when the power goes out,” said Melanie Freethey of Brooklin, Maine.
Freethey is disabled and has been relying on volunteers at the Downeast Wood Bank in Surry, Maine, to bring a pickup truck load of wood. While she does use heating oil when the temperature outside hits zero, Freethey primarily relies on wood throughout the winter. “If you don’t have any wood then your pipes are going to freeze and so will you. That is one less worry that the wood bank takes away.”
Roughly half of US homes rely on natural gas as their primary source of heating, followed by 41% that use electricity, 5% that use propane and 4% that use heating oil. Nationwide, only 1.3% use wood, but that number goes up to 22% in rural areas.
Wood banks function much like food banks, giving out firewood to people in need. To date, more than 100 firewood banks exist nationwide, and many charities and community groups also give out wood without calling themselves wood banks.
The wood is usually donated by forestry companies, as well as individuals. Banks also source wood from trees felled by storms and wood that can’t be turned into lumber.
The best scenario is when a logging company donates the wood they’ve cut, as it’s usually in good shape for firewood use, said Rebecca Rundquist, manager of the Cumberland Wood Bank, one of the longest running in south Maine.
She said volunteers at the bank not only donate wood, but often also their time by splitting and delivering finished firewood.
In Belfast, Maine, the Waldo County Woodshed, which serves 166 families, usually buys wood directly from logging companies and relies on volunteers to process and stack it, as well as make occasional deliveries.
“When you’re delivering wood, you’re seeing the worst cases,” said Bob MacGregor, who founded the Waldo County Woodshed in 2014 after reading an article on the benefits of starting a wood bank. MacGregor said he’s seen people using electric blankets to stay warm when they run out of wood.
“It’s an eye opener, makes you glad that you can go home in your car and go in your house and it’s warm,” he said.
Wood banks can also be beneficial to local ecosystems, ensuring wood that otherwise wouldn’t be used commercially doesn’t end up going to waste. “A lot of the climate change challenges actually are opportunities for wood banks,” said Jessica Leahy, a professor of forestry at the University of Maine.
In Maine, eastern tent caterpillar, emerald ash borer, browntail moths and other insects have spread through forests, killing hardwood trees like oak and ash. Maine’s quarantine restrictions prevent transport of trees from infected areas. But wood banks are a useful local solution for turning these immovable, dying trees into firewood for low-income households.
Nine per cent of Mainers use firewood as a primary heat source, but there is not comprehensive data on households that use firewood as a secondary heating source. In New England, a region prone to power outages in winter, residents in rural areas tend to use a combination of heating oil and wood-burning.
So far this winter, the Waldo County Woodshed has distributed roughly 115 cords of wood – or about $40,000 in assistance – to local families, double what they gave out this time last year. A standard cord of firewood is stacked 4ft wide, 4ft tall, and 8ft long, and can provide heating for several weeks, depending on the size and insulation of the home.
“This is Maine and we do what we can with what we got,” said Tony Aman, an arborist who co-founded the Downeast Wood Bank in 2021, after regularly coming across wood that he hated to see go to waste. He anticipates that demand will rise in March when people have exhausted their supply.
The federal government appears to recognize the growing need for wood banks as well. The US Forest Service gave out more than $712,000 for firewood bank expansion initiatives last October, with funding stemming from the bipartisan infrastructure law.
While wood is essential for some to stay warm, using it for heating is not without its risks. Burning wood is a major contributor to air pollution, especially indoors. Wood smoke contains carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds like benzene and formaldehyde, as well as particulate matter. It can cause respiratory problems, including coughing, difficulty breathing, asthma attacks and other health problems.
“I feel bad supplying firewood, when what they should be doing is going to cleaner sources of heating their homes,” Aman said. “But when you’re stretched for money, especially if you’re in poverty or disabled, it makes it very difficult to afford that conversion.”
Eligible Maine homeowners can qualify for the state’s heat efficient initiative, which pays for the cost and installation of a heat pump. Since 2019, the state has installed more than 80,000 heat pumps.
Burning wood more efficiently can create less smoke. Using dry, seasoned wood with Environmental Protection Agency-certified wood stoves is one of the best ways to lower indoor air pollution.