Thursday, December 15, 2005

Consumers substitute energy with soaring prices

Pollution-generating firewood is surging in sales departments, as consumers go old-school to heat their homes. Air quality watchdogs are not pleased.

The hottest item for Christmas this year might not be a trendy video game or high-tech digital camera, but a stack of firewood. That's right. Dead trees are in.

High natural-gas prices this fall have ignited demand for wood in a way not seen in years, as a growing number of Northern Californians are attempting to save money on their PG&E bills by turning to their fireplaces instead of thermostats for heat.

Many Bay Area firewood dealers say supplies of seasoned oak, pine and other firewood are running low. Some have already run out.

Meanwhile, the amount of firewood gathered in California's 18 national forests increased 71 percent this fall compared with last fall, the Forest Service reports.

And nationally, sales of wood stoves are up significantly this year, while sales of many types of natural-gas burning stoves and fireplace inserts are down.

``We may run short of wood this year, only the second time since we've been in business,'' said Robert Bahara, whose family has owned Bahara's Farmer's Outlet, a Sunnyvale firewood dealer, since 1954.

But one group isn't full of cheer about the trend: air pollution regulators.
Officials at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District note that soot from burning wood, or ``particulate matter,'' is a health hazard. During cold nights with no wind or rain, smoke from wood fires can stagnate over neighborhoods, aggravating breathing problems for people with asthma, the elderly and children.