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October 17, 2013

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Scott Sargent of Western Maine Timberlands unloads cut trees Tuesday at Southern Maine Firewood in Gorham, which has had a waiting list since September for customers who want seasoned wood.

Dry firewood getting scarce at wrong time for Mainers

By Jessica Hall
jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

If you haven’t bought firewood yet for this heating season, you may be out of luck.

Dealers in Maine have limited supplies of dry wood, and some already have waiting lists of customers. Advertised prices for wood have been creeping up in some areas in the past month as supplies have dwindled.

Blame this year’s wet spring and early summer, which prevented loggers from harvesting wood in time to dry it over the summer, say dealers and loggers. Going into this fall, the supply of seasoned wood was limited.

And the problem could continue into next year if wet conditions make it difficult for loggers to haul logs, dealers said.

“Loggers have been really struggling to get wood to saw. ... The ground’s so wet, they can’t get into the woods to work,” said Jake Dyer, owner of Southern Maine Firewood in Gorham. “Loggers can’t count anymore on working throughout the winter, either. There used to be hard, frozen ground early. But the softer ground throughout the year makes work difficult.”

Southern Maine Firewood sells dry, seasoned wood for $250 per cord, for an order of two or more cords. Green wood, which can’t be burned until it dries, costs $200 a cord. Dyer said those are the same as last year’s prices.

Shellee Zaharis, office manager at Southern Maine Firewood, said the company has had a waiting list since September for customers who want seasoned wood.

Normally the company delivers about 400 cords of wood in September. This year it delivered 600 cords as orders spiked, Zaharis said.

“Events like the Farmer’s Almanac calling for an extremely cold winter and news in Syria make people worry about the cost of heating their homes and make people order,” said Zaharis, referring to the uncertainty about Middle East politics and oil supplies.

Southern Maine Firewood sold about 3,000 cords last year and expects to sell about 3,700 this year.

“This is the best year we’ve had since 2008, when oil prices spiked to $4 a gallon,” Dyer said.

JUNE RAINFALL DOUBLE THE NORM

According to the National Weather Service, southern Maine got about 7 inches of rain in June, almost double the normal amount. That created soggy conditions at a crucial time for firewood harvesting, loggers said.

“Probably a lot of guys were not in the woods in the summer,” said Michael Beardsley, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, which represents about 2,000 to 2,500 loggers who harvest wood for everything from firewood to lumber to pulp for paper and cardboard. “They’re not able to log when it’s muddy.”

The total rainfall so far this year in southern Maine is actually about normal, at 35.45 inches, compared with the normal 35.73 inches. Last year was wetter, with 43.23 inches by this point in the year, the weather service said.

Because of wet conditions throughout last winter, less wood than normal was stockpiled by spring, dealers said.

AVOID BUYING FIREWOOD IN THE FALL

Mark Killinger, owner of Atlantic Firewood in Cumberland, said he has turned away business this fall because he hasn’t had enough seasoned wood. “We’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,” he said.

He said he hasn’t raised his prices. “We have a lot of older customers on limited income, and firewood can be a much cheaper option,” he said.

Killinger said the fall is the worst time of year to buy firewood. “You need to buy it ahead of time. Buy green wood in the spring and let it season over the summer. Buy early and buy a little too much, because you never know how much you’ll really use and it’s impossible to find seasoned wood in the winter.”

Steve Webster of Webster Tree Service in Auburn said he usually seasons firewood over the summer, but this year’s wet weather made it difficult to dry the wood.

“We don’t sell it if it’s wet. We’ll keep it another winter and it will be ready next year,” Webster said. “People who are planning on buying dry wood now are having trouble finding it.”

Webster said he usually sells 200 to 300 cords a year, but will sell only one-third of that this year.

He said he charges about $235 a cord for seasoned wood – the same as last year – while some other dealers in central Maine are advertising dry, seasoned wood for as much as $275 a cord.

“We kept our prices the same and customers appreciate that and come back year after year,” Webster said.

COLDER FORECAST ADDS TO DEMAND

Demand for firewood is strong as forecasts say the cost of home heating will increase for most people in the Northeast this year.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average cost of natural gas, the most common home heating fuel, is projected to increase by 15.3 percent in the Northeast, to $13.54 per thousand cubic feet.

The forecast calls for temperatures this winter to be 3 percent colder than last year’s. It defines winter as October to March.

Natural-gas consumers are expected to use 2.7 percent more this year and could pay $1,045, an 18.3 percent increase from last winter.

Heating oil, the second-most-common heating fuel in the Northeast, is expected to cost less this winter because of increased supplies, according to the Energy Information Administration. The average cost of heating oil is projected to decrease by 4.9 percent.

The state of Maine estimates that it takes 540 gallons of fuel per year to heat a 1,500-square-foot home.

Killinger, the owner of Atlantic Firewood, said one cord of hardwood equals 200 to 250 gallons of home heating oil.

LOOKING AHEAD TO NEXT YEAR

Scott Olson of South Portland ordered his firewood six weeks ago and didn’t have a problem finding seasoned wood. He said he paid $500 for two cords.

Typically, Olson said, he burns about a cord of wood a year. But he has done some weather-proofing to his house so he estimates he may use less this year.

He’ll be lucky to have extra wood left for next year, dealers said.

The bad season this year – and the waiting lists that won’t go away soon – could escalate problems for next year’s wood supply, dealers said.

“The real concern is next year,” said Dyer, at Southern Maine Firewood. “We have a waiting list already and we’re not going to have enough wood coming in for next year. It’s a really big, big deal.”

Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@pressherald.com





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