Did you start your day by building a fire in a wood stove?
If so, you’re in good company in the Spokane/Spokane Valley metro area. Nearly 7 percent of the households in the region of 548,000 people use wood as their primary heating source, according to U.S. census figures.
Among the nation’s 100 most populous metro areas, Spokane/Spokane Valley ranks No. 1 for the percentage of residents who rely on wood heating. The metro area includes Spokane, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties. In Kootenai County, which isn’t included in the metro area, about 8 percent of households used wood for their primary heating source last year.
The nation’s No. 2 large metro area for wood heating was in New England. In Worcester, Massachusetts, about 4.4 percent of residents use wood as their primary heating source, according to the census.
Obviously, it’s a cheap and plentiful fuel source in the Inland Northwest. The region is also home to two large wood stove manufacturers: Quadra-Fire in Colville and Blaze King in Walla Walla, said Grant Falco, general manager of Falco’s Spokane, which sells wood stoves and hearth products.
“Those are two of the biggest brands out there,” Falco said. “There’s a lot of word of mouth about wood stoves in this area. People grew up with one, or their friends have one.”
Falco also believes there’s a certain self-reliance at work among Inland Northwest residents.
“You have a ton of people in rural areas without natural gas who have to heat with electricity,” he said.
If they live on acreage with trees, they have an alternate fuel source right outside their door. There’s a sense of “I’m relying on myself to heat my home,” Falco said.
That mentality also extends to the Inland Northwest’s urban residents, Falco said. Sales of fireplace inserts are still booming from the 2015 windstorm, which left thousands of Spokane residents without power for more than a week. He also hears frequent references to extended power outages during the 1996 Ice Storm.
“This community is a little different,” Falco said. “They plan for the worst.”
The proportion of older homes in the Spokane/Spokane Valley metro area is probably a factor, too, said John Egan, a Texas blogger who complied a list of top metro areas in the nation with highest use of wood heat. Most cities on the list were in northern latitudes, and most had older housing stock. That means many of the homes are already configured for wood heat, which was commonly used before 1940, he said.
Chris DeForest started heating his South Hill home with wood in 2001. After he and his wife bought the place, they realized it wasn’t safe to use their fireplace without replacing the mortar in the 100-year-old chimney. Instead, they opted to install a high-efficiency fireplace insert and a flexible chimney liner.
After they had their home weatherized, the couple realized they seldom needed their gas furnace.
“We love the warmth, and it concentrates our family around the hearth,” DeForest said. “It’s a warm, cozy room.”
The couple burns one to two cords of wood each winter, primarily red fir, which they harvest from family-owned acreage.
DeForest spends two weekends gathering the wood each year and two weekends splitting and stacking it. He rents a truck to haul it to his house.
“The wood isn’t free because it takes time to get it, and I have to rent the truck,” he said. But, “I’m sure we’re saving money, though I haven’t figured out the cost for several years.”
Avista’s typical residential customer in Eastern Washington pays about $59 per month for natural gas, or about $708 annually, according to the company.
It was a no-brainer
Mindy Lyons, of Chatteroy, has used wood as a primary heat source for seven years. With an electric heating bill that shot up to $300 per month during the winter, a wood stove was “a no-brainer,” she said.
She and her family also like the dry, penetrating heat given off by wood stoves.
“I tell my husband that it’s the one heat that warms my core,” she said. And, “When the power goes out, we love that we still have heat, and a place to cook and light to see by.”
For many people, cutting firewood is the barrier to heating with wood, Lyons said. But in her family of six, everyone pitches in. She and her husband and their kids, ages 11 to 16, cut some of the firewood from their own property and from friends’ properties. They also buy permits to cut wood in the national forest.
“I like getting the wood. Those are good family times,” Lyons said. “And in the winter, when you’re nice and warm, it’s work well paid off.”
The Colville National Forest sells around 10,000 cords of firewood per year, which works out to around 2,500 permits. The Idaho Panhandle National Forests sold a similar amount last year, though 2015 volumes were down because of the long wildfire season, which kept people out of the forest.
At $5 per cord, “it is a real bargain,” said Franklin Pemberton, Colville forest spokesman. “It helps supplement many people’s electric or gas heating, helping keep their heating costs down.”
But wood-cutters need to follow forest rules to prevent resource damage, he said. Recently, the Colville National Forest has had problems with people cutting firewood outside of approved areas, cutting down green trees and girdling live trees so they can come back later and harvest the dead tree for firewood.
Wood smoke and weather inversions
The Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency monitors the air at seven locations in Spokane County.
When cold, stagnant weather sets in, preventing wood smoke from dispersing, the agency calls burn bans to prevent the county from exceeding federal pollution limits. The culprits are fine particles produced from incomplete combustion. They contain potential cancer-causing compounds, and they lodge in the lungs and enter the bloodstream.
Fines for burning during a ban start at $200, though households without another heat source can continue to burn, said Lisa Woodard, spokeswoman for the clean air agency.
The agency has a burn ban hotline – (509) 477-4710 – and people also can sign up to get email alerts at spokanecleanair.org. Households where wood is the only heating source need to apply for an exemption from burn bans, and those forms are also on the agency’s website.
State law also prohibits “excessive smoke” from chimneys, which is measured by how opaque the smoke column is.
To reduce wood smoke, people should use “seasoned” firewood with a moisture content of no more than 20 percent, Woodard said. It can take nine to 12 months to cure the wood, she said. Providing ample air flow to the fire so it burns instead of smolders, and keeping fires small, also reduces smoke.
So far this year, the clean air agency has fielded 65 complaints about wood smoke.
Staff researcher Kai Teoh contributed to this story.
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