If the recent snow has inspired you to pick up wood for your fireplace or wood burning stove, you might be out of luck. Firewood suppliers around the state are turning customers away. Even if you can acquire a cord or two, you may find the wood is difficult to burn or considerably more expensive than it has been in years past.
The automated voicemail for Reed’s Firewood in Durham warns that their deliveries are booked up through January and February, and they are only taking orders from existing customers.
Jack Dyer, owner of Southern Maine Firewood in Gorham, always warns his customers not to wait to buy wood in the first place. “I’m constantly telling customers don’t wait until fall to get the wood,” he said. “It’s not like ordering a pizza.”
Even the regular procrastinators may find this year’s firewood market unusually scant, though. The primary culprit: wet weather.
According to Dyer and other firewood suppliers, this year was more consistently wet than usual in the forests of Maine. A rainy spring bled into humid summer days, and autumn only brought more storms. The logs have been left completely soaked, and with the daylight hours decreasing every day, the wood has even less time to dry. Firewood needs to be dried, or “seasoned,” to effectively burn.
“The wood just never dried out,” Dyer said, “This is one of the worst years I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been doing this almost 30 years.”
For firewood, wetness presents a problem from the get-go. In addition to waterlogging the stock once it is stacked, rain compromises the logging conditions themselves. Keith Kanoti, university forest manager for the University of Maine School of Forest Resources, said saturated soils are extra vulnerable to rutting, whereby heavy logging equipment cuts deep grooves in the forest floor that changes the hydrology, physiology and productivity of the site.
“Soil loses strength when wet,” Kanoti said. “We generally try to harvest timber when it’s frozen or soils are dry.”
Kanoti said there is always variability in the weather from one year to another, but he has also taken stock of the wet conditions. “Certainly that would affect people’s ability to get in the woods and harvest timber,” he said. “When it’s wet, you do a lot of damage, and we don’t want to do that.”
Though the National Weather Service recorded overall average precipitation rates for this fall and drier than average conditions this summer across the state, different regional firewood suppliers have reported oppressive humidity and relentless rains similar to the ones Dyer described in their neck of the woods.
“We had similar inquiries about firewood,” John C. Bott, director of communications at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, wrote in an email. “Your best bet for information is the firewood dealers. Maine is so large and diverse that local conditions vary widely.”
The exact amount of precipitation often matters less to effectively gather and store firewood than the frequency of rainfall. Dyer said usually there will be a stretch of decent weather after a storm for wood to recover, but this year the rains have been more consistent.
“It seems like we’re getting storms every two or three days,” Dyer said. “We just didn’t get really good drying weather.”
With supply down, Dyer and others have had to turn customers away. To meet demand, some firewood suppliers have turned to kiln drying, which uses a special oven to dry wood over the course of a few days instead of the months or years usually needed for the natural seasoning process. Kiln drying also kills bugs that may be hiding out in the wood, which is not only an added benefit for buyers looking to avoid inviting wood-boring insects into their homes, but also for suppliers who want to distribute their product across state lines.
The major drawback to kiln drying is the expense. The kiln itself can cost thousands of dollars for the suppliers, but the cost is also borne by consumers. William A. Day Jr. & Sons, Inc., a firewood supplier based in Porter, recently added a kiln to its operations. Brent Day, one of the owners, estimated that the kiln adds about $70 per cord of wood because of the propane and handling it requires.
Some customers are willing to pay the premium, especially this year. “People are buying a seasoned product and they are not getting the quality of product that they should be getting,” Day said. “The kiln dried is starting to take off.”
But kiln drying isn’t a catchall. For one, it isn’t instantaneous; it usually takes three days to properly season wood in a kiln, but some suppliers try to rush and do it in two. Even still, the firewood suppliers have trouble keeping up with demand. “The colder weather is coming in soon, and we don’t have enough product to fulfill all the orders that we have,” Day said. “Some people are getting very frustrated because everybody is in the same boat.”
Plus, the weather doesn’t seem to be letting up, and even kiln-dried wood will suffer if the wetness persists. “I don’t care if it’s bone dry wood,” Dyer said. “If it’s being delivered [on a rainy day], it’s still taking in some of that moisture.”
The first snow serves as a capstone to the challenging firewood season. Not only does snowy weather mark the start of spiking demand as Mainers look to heat their chilly homes, but the icy precipitation also exacerbates the waterlogged supply. “I kept thinking the weather’s going to break,” Dyer said, “but it’s too late now.”