Tri-county agency promotes safe and healthy home heating with wood

— Created December 16, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Melanie Hammons

As winter officially approaches, many people on Whidbey Island have found themselves taking the chill out of the air with a cozy fire in the fireplace or wood stove. But how does an increase in home heating with wood affect air quality? The air we breathe forms an invisible, yet vital component of our environment. 

Since 1967, the mission of Mount Vernon-based Northwest Clean Air Agency (NWCAA), has been to preserve our breathing spaces, which also benefits Washington’s evergreen forests.

Roughly two dozen employees seek to carry out the NWCAA’s goals, says Seth Preston, Communications Program Manager.

“We are a small group as far as governmental organizations go, but everyone is thoroughly dedicated to our mission,” he said. 

That level of diligence is readily apparent from the earliest days of NWCAA’s inception, said Preston.

“We are the oldest clean air agency in the state. We predate not only the Department of Ecology, but also the (Federal) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.)

NWCAA focuses on air quality in the three-county region formed by Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties.  According to its website, factors impacting local air quality range from wildfires, industrial or construction pollution to residential wood-burning stoves.

In wintertime, a greater share of that impact is linked to the latter.  NWCAA estimates  up to half of residences in Northwest Washington rely on wood-burning heat, as either primary or back-up sources.  Wood-burning stoves can sometimes produce harmful particulates that can degrade air quality.

Poor air quality especially creates problems for children, the elderly, and those with heart/lung issues, said Preston, noting that particulate-filled air frequently ends up inside residences as well as outside.

There are many reasons people give for using wood-source heat. One is financial:  Many people have come to rely on wood stoves as efficient, economical ways to heat their homes. There’s another dollar-related human motivation at work as well – knowing there’s such a ready market for seasoned, dry firewood, some people either make a living or supplement their income by supplying wood for themselves and others.

Much of the main source of potential firewood is directly due to those infamous Washington wintertime storms that never fail to take out numerous trees. Devoting these trees to producing firewood answers a need while at the same time reduces chances of future wildfires, which can also affect air quality.

The entire decision-making process – natural and human factors – that comprise home heating choices is a complex one, Preston admits. It involves striking a balance with not only the natural environment, but with humans who are very much a part of that, too.

“We acknowledge people have valid reasons for using wood heat:  Wood-burning stoves, when properly used with seasoned wood, can be a very smart choice.  Especially when they are used as a back-up heat source,” he said.

That statement particularly resonates with Island County residents. Last month, all of Whidbey Island experienced a windstorm that led to a 12-hour-plus power outage.  There’s security in knowing one’s home will stay warm in spite of power outages that strike suddenly and seem to last interminably.

Some of these homeowners cite a variety of reasons for their heating preference. Central Whidbey resident Norm Skurdal has heated with wood for over 20 years.  In his rural neighborhood, he is blessed to have ready access to abundant firewood.  His woodstove, which he describes as “extremely efficient,” has saved him money over the long haul, while also providing reliable heat in case of power failures. 

An important part of NWCAA’s mission is to provide the public with links and resources devoted to the safe implementation and use of wood-burning stoves.  This includes everything from how to ensure wood is properly seasoned to information about wood stove usage, said Preston.

“We view our role as educational and informational, just as much as it is regulatory enforcement,” he said.

Because NWCAA’s primary focus is strictly air quality, it may seem a brief discussion on fire hazards in the home is somewhat out of place. After all, from 2013 – 2017 nationwide, only six percent of home fires were linked to a fireplace or chimney flue. Closer to home, there were no wood stove fires in Oak Harbor in 2018 and 2019, according to Oak Harbor Fire Chief Ray Merrill.

 Yet the same safe practices that lead to optimal air quality seem undeniably responsible for lower fatalities and injuries when it comes to fire hazards.  “It goes without saying: These best practices just work together to achieve good results on more than one level,” said Preston.

In the late 19th century, pioneer C.T. Conover, inspired by abundant evergreen forests, gave Washington an unofficial nickname, “the Evergreen State.”  The term, “green” is an apt description of the general public’s mindset toward the natural environment, which ideally aims to both protect and enjoy nature’s beauty.

Wood-heating involves a fascinating interconnectedness of sorts, dating right back to those evergreens that gave this state its nickname.  It reaches from the trees that supply the wood to the humans who are its beneficiaries.  It is perhaps somewhat reminiscent of what this region’s earliest settlers may have felt.

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