Rebecca Rundquist, the board president of the Cumberland Wood Bank, in front of one of their woodpiles on December 3 in North Yarmouth. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Before a volunteer from the Cumberland Wood Bank pulled up to her house with a load of firewood, a woman from Gray used her electric kitchen stove to try to stay warm. She found free pallets on the side of the road to burn in her woodstove, but they didn’t last long and nights were becoming colder.

In the Boothbay region, people struggling to pay for firewood burned their furniture, skipped meals and cut back on necessary medication.

Those desperate situations are repeated each winter across rural Maine, where many people rely on firewood to heat their homes and have few resources for help when they are unable to get enough wood to last through the winter. More people are now turning to wood banks for firewood, but with only about a half-dozen operating in Maine, help remains out of reach for many households.

“It’s frightening what people have to do in order to stay warm. People do what they have to do to try to survive,” said Holly Stover, a Democratic state representative from Boothbay and the director of operations for the Community Resource Council in Boothbay Harbor. The council’s Woodchucks program provides firewood to people in four towns on the peninsula.

Wood banks, similar to a food bank, provide firewood at little or no cost to people in need. Most are run by volunteers who harvest, split and season the logs that are stored on donated lots. Often, wood is donated when lots are cleared or trees are trimmed.

Between 8% and 15% of Mainers use firewood as a primary heat source. It is the only heat source for as many as half of the homes in parts of Washington County, said Jessica Leahy, a professor of forestry at the University of Maine who researches wood banks.


For many years, neighbors have just helped neighbors, an informal system that was hard to track. But most of the wood banks now operating in Maine were formed in recent years. Some of that momentum stems from the work of Sabrina Vivian, a UMaine student whose 2014 capstone project focused on wood banks, Leahy said.

Vivian organized a New England Wood Bank Summit and created a community guide to starting and running a wood bank. That guide was posted online and has been downloaded more than 11,000 times in the last eight years. Vivian also wrote an op-ed that highlighted the need for wood banks and the success of the Cumberland Wood Bank.

Bob MacGregor read it and realized a wood bank was desperately needed in Waldo and Piscataquis counties, where UMaine research found the highest numbers of homes heated with wood and people living in poverty. He reached out to a few friends who supported the idea and they started planning for the following winter.

As soon as word about the Waldo County Woodshed in Searsmont got out, it was clear the need was there, MacGregor said. The wood bank has grown each year since. Last year it distributed 180 cords – a full cord is 128 cubic feet of wood – from nine sites across Waldo County.

This year, the need is even greater. The wood bank has already given out twice as much wood as it had distributed by this time last year. Typically, they run out by early spring.

“There are still people out there needing wood before we’re tapped out for the season,” said Anne Saggese, a Waldo County Woodshed board member.



Back in 2008, a group of people from the Boothbay region gathered in a church basement to discuss what to do about the energy crisis and recession. They split off into groups to brainstorm ideas – one came back with a plan to provide firewood.

The group of volunteers called itself the Woodpile 10 and started getting together on Tuesdays and Saturdays to harvest, cut, split, stack, season and deliver hardwood to residents of Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor, Southport and Edgecomb. That effort grew into the Woodchucks, which last year delivered 55 cords of wood to 42 households. They expect to deliver even more this year.

“It hasn’t really been cold yet. It usually takes a cold snap for people to say ‘Oh gosh, I need wood,” Stover said.

The Woodchucks operate from a lot rented from the town of Boothbay for $1 a year. Volunteers use wood from contractors clearing lots, trees that come down after storms, and from arborists and others who donate wood after trimming trees.

Billy Smith, 71, of Boothbay has been volunteering since he saw an ad in a newspaper shortly after the group formed. He brought in three wood splitters to make the work easier and continues to volunteer every week. He enjoys the work, he said, and can see the impact it has on families who don’t have money to spend on heating.


“Every little bit helps,” he said.

None of the work would be possible without volunteers who are so dedicated to helping their neighbors, Stover said.

“All the sweat equity they put in to getting that wood out the door, on the trailer and onto the road has meaning because of who it goes to,” she said.


With high fuel costs, rising prices on food and critical shortage of affordable housing, Rebecca Rundquist was not surprised that the Cumberland Wood Bank has been inundated with calls from people looking for help. It already has given away all of the seasoned wood it had for this winter.

“People just assume that in communities like this that everyone is financially stable and there are no problems. Whether it’s this season or others, there are people who really need help,” said Rundquist, president of the wood bank board.


The Cumberland Wood Bank – the oldest in the area – is associated with the Congregational Church in Cumberland and has been a model for other wood banks. It was founded in 2007 by Bruce Wildes after he helped a widow with firewood and realized a better system was needed to help others.

Before the pandemic, volunteers were processing and delivering up to 100 cords of wood each year, said John Hankinson, a longtime volunteer. That all slowed down when COVID-19 made it unsafe for them to gather, but they’re now back in full swing and looking ahead to next winter.

Rebecca Rundquist, the board president of the Cumberland Wood Bank, said “there are people who really need help.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

As Hankinson makes each delivery, he sees the impact it has on people, including the woman in Gray who was burning pallets to stay warm. He’d like to see more community groups start wood banks to help people struggling to heat their homes.

In recent weeks, Leahy, from UMaine, has been fielding calls from people and community groups interested in starting a wood bank. She hopes to support the expansion of the network of wood banks using a $62,500 U.S. Forest Service grant awarded to UMaine for the National Wood Bank Project. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is a partner in the project and will focus its work on research.

In Maine, the work will largely focus on educational programming on how to start and operate a wood bank. There will be programs on managing forests for firewood, firewood processing, volunteer management, insurance and safe burning.

That work, Leahy hopes, will make it easier for people to start wood banks that are needed in areas where people who are disabled, on fixed incomes or living paycheck to paycheck need assistance. But she also hopes that people will not forget that there are structural issues in society that cannot be addressed solely by volunteers.

“People should be able to afford basic elements of living – we can’t lose sight of that,” she said. “We have to think about bigger, longer-term solutions than managing the crisis of people being cold this winter.”

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