During a long and cold winter, we all are seeking warmth, coziness and comfort and, for some of us, that involves the beauty and warmth of a fire. We are looking for “hygge” – the Danish word meaning “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” In any article about hygge, you are very likely to see an image of warm socks, tea, a book and a fire in the fireplace. All through my life, I have loved a fire to sit by, and we almost always have one when socializing with friends in the winter. My father loved the outdoors and camping and used to say that the man who heated with wood was ‘twice warmed’ – when he split and stacked his firewood, and when he sat by the fire later. On our many camping trips as a family, the fire was central to our campsite at the beginning and end of every day.
The attraction and response to a cozy hearth isn’t surprising, as the sense of comfort and security provided by a fire is ancient and deeply rooted in the human psyche, at the most fundamental level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – especially during the cold, dark, scary nights of winter. Scholars estimate that humans began controlling fire about 2 million years ago, with the earliest hearths showing up just under 800,000 years ago.
When I recently mentioned buying more firewood for the winter this year, a friend said to me, “you know that burning wood is terrible for the environment, don’t you?” My reaction was something along the lines of ‘you’ve got to be kidding, with all the cars and industrial emissions, you’re telling me that my little fireplace, which gives me so much pleasure, is terrible? Also, wood is a natural and renewable resource! Can’t we have any fun anymore?’ But, after my grumpy old man moment, their comment made me wonder what the experts say about burning wood and the impact it has on the air we breathe.
I am mostly addressing the residential and recreational use of wood in fireplaces (indoor and out) in this article. There are some houses that heat exclusively with wood, using stoves designed for that purpose. In 2020, the EPA revised and tightened emission standards for those kinds of residential wood burning heaters in an effort to reduce their emissions: “Smoke from wood heating devices can increase PM (particulate matter) to levels that pose serious health concerns.” Minnesota and a few other northern states have pushed back on the regulations, according to this MPR story, which notes that Minnesota ranks 3rd for per capita emissions from wood burning (after Vermont and Wisconsin). But for most of us in the metro area, the use of firewood is occasional and fun rather than our main source of home heating.
Sitting by a fire may have become even more popular in the last few years. Certainly, the pandemic was a factor, given that socially spaced outdoor gatherings around a fire became commonplace. Solo Stoves, the manufacturer of the “smoke free” stainless steel outdoor fireplace, saw sales rise over 40% in the first three quarters of 2022, even before the holiday season.
On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that wood fire smoke can be hazardous. The American Lung Association (ALA) notes on their web page, “while many people enjoy the look and smell of a backyard fire, it is important to remember that burning wood creates air pollution that is harmful, especially for those with asthma or other respiratory conditions. No fire is a healthy fire.”
I spoke with Jon Hunter of the ALA recently and he noted the emission of fine particulate matter (aka ‘soot’) that is in wood fire smoke and the ways it can trigger issues for the lungs and heart. Jon said that he, too, has “fond memories of the smell of wood smoke,” but that he has had a pile of wood by his house for the 12 years he’s lived there, untouched. “I can’t bring myself to burn it, out of concern for my neighbors,” he said. “It is good to know your neighbors – they are the most impacted by your burning of wood,” he added. “Sorry to be a buzzkill!”
I also spoke with Megan Kuhl-Stennes, Air Policy Planner for the MPCA, and she said the same thing: “Wood smoke is not ‘natural’ – I don’t want to yuck your yum, but smoke is pollution.” (After these conversations I did contact the neighbors on my block, and while most didn’t mind the smell of wood smoke, one told me that he and his wife have had to close their windows on evenings when there was smoke in the air.)
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) provides warnings on the dangers of wood smoke:
“Residential wood burning has been increasing in Minnesota. The majority of wood burned is for home heating, but recreational fires are the most common reason people burn wood. The increase is concerning because 55% of direct fine particle emissions in the state come from wood burning.”
In the Twin Cities, we’ve just (in the second week of January, 2023) experienced an air pollution event which lasted nearly a week, with winter air quality the worst it has been since 2005. While this event was mostly meteorological, presumably some of that smog also came from wood fire smoke.
A survey conducted by the MPCA in 2019 found that nearly half of the households in the state burned wood, mostly for pleasure, and that the number is increasing faster than the growth of the population: “Since 2003, the volume of wood burned has been increasing by an average growth rate of 5.3% annually, while population has only increased by 0.7% per year since then.” The survey sorted out wood burning by region and found that the metro area, with over half the state’s population, burned more wood per acre than any other part of the state. Another finding was that the equipment and the fireplaces that many of us use is old and inefficient – not to mention very poor for heating spaces, hence the updated federal EPA regulations for those devices.
Further, my assumption that burning wood is better and more “natural” for the environment than burning fossil fuels may not be supported by science. A Finnish study published in 2019 concluded that “emissions from Finnish RWC (residential wood combustion) have a relatively significant climate impact, compared with GHGs (greenhouse gases)” and that the typical Finnish wood stove was the least climate friendly of common home heating options.
Given the growing awareness of the impact of wood burning, local governments across the US are regulating recreational fires. In Multnomah County, Oregon and various cities in California, wood fires are restricted on days when air quality is bad. San Francisco has used their “Spare the Air Alert” system for decades to reduce smog in that region. Wood fires are banned on Spare the Air Alert days.
In the Twin Cities, in 2012 and 2013, a group called Take Back the Air asked the Minneapolis and Edina city councils to ban all outdoor recreational wood burning pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Neither city was convinced of the need for a total ban, or that the ADA covered this situation, and Edina officials didn’t seem too interested in shutting down the outdoor fireplace at Centennial Lakes. (Take Back the Air seems to currently be inactive, and my attempts to reach them for an interview were unsuccessful.)
In my conversation with Megan Kuhl-Stennes, she reminded me that the PCA triggers air quality alert days which are publicized for the intention of warning citizens not to have fires and add to the problem on those days. The city of Minneapolis has an ordinance prohibiting recreational fires on “any period of time for which the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has issued an Air Pollution Health Advisory for Particulate Matter for an area encompassing the city of Minneapolis.” In St. Paul, the Fire Inspector or Fire Department may order a recreational fire to be discontinued if it “produces obnoxious smoke or odors that may cause a public nuisance.”
If you love your warm and cozy fire, as I do, this all might seem a bit depressing. But there are ways that you can continue to burn wood and do it mindfully and relatively safely. Here are a few considerations as you create that winter hygge in your home:
- Buy wood responsibly – know where it is coming from.
- Burn only natural wood! No garbage, no treated lumber, no composite or “manufactured” wood, nothing painted or glued.
- Make sure the wood is very dry (natural air dried – or “seasoned” – wood takes 12 – 18 months to dry; the longer the better). The moisture content of your firewood should be below 20% as measured by a moisture meter, which you can get for about $25.
- Buy kiln dried wood if it is available – it may be a bit more expensive but is the driest for burning and has the added advantage that the kiln drying process kills all pests that may be in the wood. Drying in a kiln involves baking the split wood at about 200 degrees for three to six days.
- Never let a fire smolder.
- Use a newer and more efficient appliance and consider an insert (regulated by the updated federal standards) for your existing conventional fireplace.
- Look at your chimney from outside during the fire – if you see smoke, your wood isn’t dry enough. Ideally, you will not see smoke coming from the chimney.
In the course of researching and writing this article, my perspective has changed on my lifelong love of the wood fire. While it is one thing to believe theoretically in the importance of clean air, it is another to look at our personal practices and the ways they might affect those around us – especially our closest neighbors and those who live on our block. I will probably not give up burning wood entirely, but I will try to observe the best practices listed above and will be much more mindful as I experience the coziness a wood fire provides.