Becoming Alaskan: Firewood

Firewood on the front porch

Firewood is a pretty big deal up in Alaska. I don’t have any statistics on how many folks heat with wood, but it sure feels like everyone does. It’s becoming less common within Homer city limits as households switch over to natural gas, but that’s a fraction of the total number of homes. Let me give you a run down on the heat options up here:

  • Electric – baseboard, or forced air. Expensive (more on this in another post); it’s a bit over 2x the national average per kWh for electricity here in Homer.
  • Heat oil – Toyo/Monitor stove, boiler, or forced air. Pretty common. Many folks have 300 or 500 gallon heat oil drums outside and heat their homes with a Toyo or two. They’re basically beefy, permanently installed space heaters. Heat oil is expensive the price fluctuates with the price of crude.
  • Propane – typically a boiler. Again, expensive and the price fluctuates fairly significantly.
  • Wood – stove, fireplace, or wood fired boiler. We live surrounded by forests. Many people have access to free wood.
  • Don’t. Winterize your house, and wave goodbye until spring.

Primarily for economic reasons, folks heat with wood. It’s also the only heat you can source yourself, without relying on “the man” or “the system”. But heating with wood isn’t as simple as just punching UP or DOWN on the thermostat. You have to secure a source of wood, store it somewhere, learn how to build fires and keep the creosote buildup to a minimum, and so on.

Our rental home in the heart of Homer has electric baseboard (long ignored), a Toyo oil stove, and a wood stove. We’ve never used the baseboard heat, and hope never to have to. In an attempt to limit our oil consumption, we tried buying firewood at first. A family moving back to Anchorage was selling 1/2 cord on Craigslist – we snatched that right up. Next we tried buying some firewood from a local business, but couldn’t connect with them. Finally we decided to heck with this, we’re Alaskans now – time to get our own firewood. Plus buying cut, dried/seasoned, delivered spruce around here is ~$225/cord (if you can get on a seller’s list) and we’ll need a few cords this winter. So if you’re willing to put in the labor yourself, you can save some serious dough.

The first challenge to overcome is finding trees that you can cut. After all, every tree is growing in land owned by someone. We don’t own any land, so that’s out. We don’t have any friends up here (yet), so we’re not going to find trees there. There are a few options for harvesting trees from public lands. The State of AK sells permits for $10/cord (a cord of wood is 4’x4’x8′ or 128 cubic feet) to harvest dead trees from state lands. Wood can also be harvested from the Borough lands, but with more restrictions. For example, on Kenai Borough lands, you can’t harvest any more than 3 trees per acre in a calendar year. I believe there are options for firewood harvesting in parks and refuges, in accordance with current regulations. Permits are required, and it’s always for harvesting already dead trees.

We picked up a 1-year permit for 3 cords from state land out East End Rd, and decided to embark on our own Griswold family tree harvesting experience. When Saturday rolled around, we loaded Little B into the truck and headed East.  After surveying the land and any road-accessible access points, we got to work. The place we settled on had a place to park the truck, and an ATV trail up/along a ridge line.

Firewood Parking

Having never felled a tree before, I started working on some pretty small trees and trees that were already down. The last thing we needed was an injury. My confidence was building, but the area we were in had already been cleared of the low hanging fruit. The nearest medium-sized trees were either down a fairly steep hill and/or further than Mama B and I wanted to haul the logs. Owning an ATV would’ve been huge. Being able to drag or winch the trees out of the ravine, back to the truck, would’ve made quick work of the task. But alas, we don’t own one (yet!) so we instead decided to move and look for something a bit more road-accessible.

Papa B cutting up a tree

We relocated, and I dropped a good sized tree. It was probably 11-12″ or so in diameter at 4′ off the ground. After limbing the tree, hoofing it back to the truck for more fuel, cutting it into 16″ length rounds, and loading it into the truck we had pretty close to a bed full of wood. It was hard work, but at 1/3 of a cord of wood it felt like it was at least worth the trouble. Particularly for a bunch of rookies.

When we got home I figured there was no time like the present to start splitting. I don’t mind the task. I mean, there are plenty of knotty/gnarled pieces that are a bear and would be great candidates for a hydraulic splitter. But generally, it goes pretty smoothly. It’s satisfying work with visual progress, done with a valuable purpose in mind. When you’re splitting a bunch of wood at once you invariably get all different sized pieces. When you buy split firewood, you’re getting much more consistency. I prefer the variability. Larger splits for an established fire, smaller splits for getting things started, kindling. I was pretty surprised at how dry the wood was, from the standing dead trees. I expected a bit more moisture. And that’s good, because I’ll need to burn some of this wood this winter and it’s not going to have long to dry out.

Mama B helped stack what I split, and Little B thoroughly enjoyed watching me swing the maul. She’d laugh/giggle when I’d swing, and gently say “noooooo” after a log was split and the pieces fell. When the blisters started showing up (I still have office hands), I called it a day. It was hard work, but it felt great.

So of course that evening as I was browsing the ‘net, what was I researching? ATVs. Well, UTVs I guess. And I think I’ve decided what I’m getting: a Honda Pioneer 700-4. But that’s another post all together.


Useful Links for Current/Future Alaskans:

Alaska Division of Forestry Firewood Program

Firewood Harvesting on Kenai Borough Land

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