Alsid Lemalen - or Frenchie, as he likes to be called - is an octogenarian who has lived in western Maine for over half his life. He says it takes a special kind of person to endure a New England winter. "If you know how, you can survive," he says. "If you've never been into a winter, then it can be a little bit hard."
Frenchie learned long ago that the best way to keep his large, two-story home toasty in the winter months is to heat it with wood. The cool, dark basement of his home is piled from floor to ceiling with row upon row of hand-chopped logs. He estimates he has about six cords - some 21 cubic meters of firewood - which should more than last the winter. Last year he only used four cords.
Frenchie rigged up a specially designed heating system himself. "I got a stove that's furnace-like and I can heat the house and heat my water too at the same time with the wood," he explains. The stove blows enough hot air to heat the entire downstairs, but all his wood has to come from somewhere.
That's where the Maine Firewood Program comes in.
Peter Smith, the western regional manager for Maine's Bureau of Parks and Lands, says in the quarter-century he's been with the Department, the program has had an average of 12 participants a year… including Frenchie. However, because the price of home heating oil jumped 50 percent from the previous winter, by this past September the state had received 358 requests to sign up.
Smith says people were in a panic when they called. "They couldn't get firewood, they were worried about the cost of oil and not knowing if they would be able to heat their homes this winter."
State governments throughout most of New England, as well as Alaska and South Dakota, have started or have seen renewed interest in firewood collection programs.
In the past, Maine's Bureau would issue permits to clean up scrap wood in log yards and other forested areas where fallen wood was going to go to waste. But this year, due to the high demand, it's taken a different approach. "We're actually laying out blocks for people to cut their own firewood on, so it does improve the forests in these areas," Smith says. Foresters in Maine have marked areas with diseased or crooked, low quality trees for firewood. They also tried to find stands of smaller trees, so it would be less dangerous for participants to cut their own wood.
"This is primarily a kind of '[park on the] roadside, haul it out by hand' type of situation," Smith explains. "We do allow ATVs. If someone has an all-terrain vehicle, we'll allow them to use that to haul the firewood out. But other than that, you have to cut the tree down and cut it up into lengths and carry it out on your shoulder." He adds with a laugh, "It's not for everybody!"
While the program is open to anyone, regardless of income, it does require participants to give up a Saturday to haul out their own wood. That's when foresters are able to escort them to the specially cordoned-off areas. In addition, they must pay a fee, $25 per cord of firewood.
Maine residents, who use more heating oil than people in any other state, spent more than $1.3 billion on their fuel last year, most of which was purchased from abroad. State officials see that as a serious drain on their economy and have organized a task force to examine the local - and greener - resource of wood-based heat in public buildings.
Although wood-burning fires conjure up images of smoke and soot, new technology makes new stoves more environmentally friendly. Leslie Wheeler, with the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, an industry group which tracks wood stove sales and technology, explains that they are more efficient, as well. "The [EPA-certified] stoves today burn one-third less fuel than uncertified stoves. EPA-certified wood stoves basically burn the smoke twice, it burns the wood and then that smoke is burned again, so there's very little particulate that goes up into the air, the outdoor air." Wheeler says nationwide, wood burning stove sales are up 54 percent this year from last and sales of wood pellet stoves are up 168 percent.
To encourage a switch to the cleaner-burning stoves, a bipartisan bill has been introduced in Congress to provide a tax credit for Americans who replace their old stoves with the new EPA-certified units.
The United States is not the only developed country turning to firewood during hard economic times. Finland's Ministry of Trade and Industry plans to increase the small scale use of the renewable resource by one fifth by next year. In Sweden and Austria, more than three-quarters of the new homes are now heated with wood pellets. And Australia has started a large national program along the same lines.
Even though heating oil prices have dropped considerably since late last year, many people are still participating in Maine's firewood collection program. Foresters say that since last fall, 1800 cords of wood have been cut.
As Frenchie observes, people probably wouldn't have burned wood for thousands of years if it didn't keep them warm