Saturday, June 24, 2023


I burn wood in a stove for heat in the cold months. The economics of wood-burning require that the burner get the fuel for a minimum of cost, in either money or time and effort. It takes effort not only to get the wood but to keep the fire going. At least every 20-30 minutes I have to get up and tend the fire. If the fuel ain't cheap, you might as well turn up the thermostat and sit your wide butt into a chair and pay the power company for the BTUs. 

Buying split, seasoned wood doesn't work unless you get a brother-in-law deal. Normal market price would make me pay over a grand for a winter. Bad juju. You really need to acquire and process it yourself. Find a source of raw wood that is cheap or free, hopefully that's been limbed and gathered. 

For last winter's burning season I had primarily cottonwood that I salvaged from down by the creek. 

Back in July of 2016 the Hayden Pass Fire burned a very large percentage of the Big Cottonwood Creek drainage. In places it was a very hot fire, burning even the dirt. My place was far from the burn, and firefighters kept it away from all the houses even the ones 3 miles west toward the fire. But in July 2018 the creek flash flooded.

My creek, which is half a mile from where it dumps into the Arkansas River, is one that you could almost jump across at lowest water. Never any more than knee deep. But it was more than knee deep that day.

It devastated the stream bed and vegetation along the way. Root systems of trees, primarily cottonwood and willow, were torn up. All of this happened almost 4 years before I ever owned the place, so it was not an injury to me. However, cleaning up down there has been a very large consumer of my time.

Probably 20 or more years ago a tree house was constructed between a cluster of cottonwoods on my place maybe 20 yards from the creek. The floor was like 20 feet off the ground. The trees were all dead, from the flood or the copious hardware that had been driven into them to hang the little shed. It was a hazard and an eyesore. I was trying to figure out how to get it down with killing myself.

Then early in 2022 the wind took care of the problem for me. It fell and became gravitationally safe. But it was a huge pile of debris. In April of 22 I broke my right fibula and mangled my ankle by yet again using poor judgement with my motorcycle. So the logs and debris laid there for much of the year.

The Tree House

'How does all this relate to firewood sir?' the curious reader might ask. Well I'll tell you. There was lots of crappy old lumber, sheet metal, windows that shed broken glass all over and hardware like lag bolts. But there was also about 6 cords of cottonwood logs. In addition to the trees that were holding up the tree house there were two others I felled and one huge one that came down on its own.

I blocked it and hauled out what I could that way. Some of the blocks were too heavy for me to lift into the truck so I took a splitter down there and split and hauled them. There are a number of them still down there that I can't even lift onto the splitter myself. Remember, the economics are thin on this deal. If I get a hernia and need surgery that's going to blow the whole thing up.

As firewood, cottonwood kind of sucks. It burns hot, and it's a very clean wood with little sap. But it generates a lot of ash. And it's kind of stinky. On a really cold day when the fire is burning from pre-dawn through evening the coals pile up. They are very durable. I've almost needed to go get the steel bucket and a shovel to take them outside so I have room for fuel in the firebox.

This year I have a good strategy and I'm starting early. First, I met a guy who runs a fire mitigation crew. He works with property owners to thin their woods to help with wildfire. He called me once and I went to his site that day with my trailer and came back with about a cord of mixed ponderosa, juniper, and piñon. It's green for the most part, but I processed it right away and put it under a tarp. 

Also I bought 3 cords worth of fuel gathering permits from the Forest Service for $10 each. That's to be a good guy, and in the rare case that anyone from Forest is even at the gathering site to check your permit. If I want I could easily take 10 cords. But 3 is a lot. That's about what I burn in a while winter. 

I brought home a load of mostly aspen last week. Aspen is very good, but not my top favorite. That is juniper, followed by high country fir and spruce that have been standing dead for a while. I've been processing it off the trailer for a couple hours in the morning before it gets too hot.

It's hard work. But I'm trading my labor directly for BTUs rather than paying a public utility to burn fossil fuel on my behalf. Now that I've given up on participation in society and I've stopped mountain biking, I need to put my labor somewhere and break a damn sweat once in a while anyway.

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