Up in smoke

The vanishing profession of wood cutters

Posted: Tuesday, January 09, 2001

A victim of changing circumstances, the firewood cutting industry has all but disappeared from Juneau's landscape.

Rick Townsend, who calls himself "Tattoo," is one of the last of the commercial firewood cutters in Juneau.

The soft-spoken Tattoo said he has been cutting wood or logging for more than 30 years, the last three based out of a lot next to the Liquor Barrel in the Lemon Creek area.

During the 1970s and 1980s, people could be seen cutting firewood along Juneau's roadsides. It was common to hear of firewood for sale on the radio and see it advertised in the newspaper or on numerous bulletin boards around town.

Now, few people sell firewood. Most customers have converted to pellet stoves or Monitor or Toyo brand fuel oil stoves to heat their homes.

"It's kind of a dying breed," Tattoo said.

Tattoo, who only goes by the nickname he got after the character on the "Fantasy Island" TV show, said he is plenty busy with about 5 orders needing to be filled, as of Monday evening.

"People are afraid to get cold," he said.

Most of Tattoo's wood supply comes from private landowners, contractors or developers who would rather sell their cut trees than dispose of them in the landfill. He rarely cuts down trees any more, he said.

He sold about 150 cords last year for $150 a cord, less than half the number sold per year in 1998 and 1999. The big sales stemmed from people afraid of possible Y2K computer bug problems and fears that the power could go out.

"I was busy as hell," he said.

Even with his high volume of wood sales the last few years, there hasn't been a wood-burning ban in Juneau during that time, said Steve Gilbertson, land and resources manager for the city.

Burning bans, along with several other reforms, started in the early 1980s as a way to clean Juneau's air. Temperature inversions would trap pollutants, mainly wood smoke, near ground level in the Mendenhall Valley.

"The air pollution levels were very, very high," Gilbertson said. The unhealthy air often exceeded, and sometimes quadrupled, federal air quality standards.

Air quality problems got progressively worse in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mainly stemming from new homes being built with electric heat.

"Virtually every home in 1983 and '84 had electric heat with a wood-burning appliance," said Steve Shows, a city building inspector. People would burn wood to avoid the high cost of heating a home with electricity.

Homes were built with electric heat to maximize builder's profit. Demand for homes was so high that people were buying whatever was on the market so builders didn't have to put in the more expensive furnaces and baseboard heating to sell a home, Shows said.

Besides outright burning bans for fireplaces and wood stoves, the city also adopted higher energy rating building standards and tough wood-stove emission standards.

The woodstove emission standards and burning bans led people to alternative heating sources. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some people opted for pellet stoves, which burn small wood pellets that look like rabbit food.

Pellet stoves produce less pollution than wood stoves and are less messy than hauling wood into a home with its bark and dirt, said Larry Treager, who owns Alaska Hearth Products with his wife. Treager first opened Alaska Pellet Heating in 1984, two years after his brother invented the first practical pellet stove, he said. The company expanded its operations, selling fireplace and wood stove accessories and changed the name.

Even with pellet heat, a person still has to haul the 60-pound bags to fill a stove, as well as clean the stove and chimney.

"What's happened is people just got tired of the inconvenience of wood and pellet stoves," Treager said.

About five years ago, KINY radio's long-time "Problem Corner" show host Dennis Egan said he noticed fewer people calling in wanting wood. Before then, someone would call in every day looking to buy firewood.

"That has dropped off dramatically," he said.

That was around the time high-efficiency oil-burning stoves became popular. Burning fuel oil is more convenient and less messy than wood or pellets and surged in popularity as an alternative source of heat for homes with electric heat.

"For a few years, it seemed like everybody and their brother wanted them," said Joe Sisterman, store manager for Cameron Plumbing & Heating. The company has been selling Monitor brand stoves for 10 years.

Bob Dilley said he has gone through two of the three stages - wood and then two Monitor stoves in his home. Dilley was recently reminded of the work involved with firewood. He had 13 trees cut down on his property and has been trying to sell the firewood since October with little luck.

"People are trying to get away from hauling the wood or 60-pound bags of pellets," Sisterman said.

That fits in well with another reason several people cited for the diminishing wood demand.

"Maybe the population is getting a little old to get wood for home and hearth," said building inspector Shows.

A younger population in the 1980s was more energetic about getting and using wood, Gilbertson said. He said his neighbors are a good example. They used to burn a lot of wood, spending about seven weekends a summer stocking up for winter, he said, before they realized that time could be spent fishing.

Mike Hinman can be reached at mhinman@juneauempire.com.

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