Last winter’s numbing cold created a run on firewood over the summer as New Englanders stocked up early to make sure their woodpiles were high. The result: Most suppliers are now completely out of wood, and what is available costs 15 to 25 percent more than last year.
“I probably called five or six places. They were all completely out,” said Moira Munns, a Natick resident who said she lights a fire about once a week for the atmosphere it lends her home. “At some places, it was just a recorded message: ‘We have no firewood for the season.’ ”
A Hyde Park firewood salesman, Paul Fulmore, said he got 40 calls on the day before Thanksgiving from customers who had waited until the last minute to lay in a holiday wood supply.
“I stopped answering the phone. I couldn’t take it anymore,” Fulmore said. “The demand has exceeded the supply. Everyone upped their orders.”
Fulmore said he has increased prices, but not enough to cover the rise in his wholesale costs. Last year, his supplier in Vermont charged him $335 for a cord of kiln-dried firewood, which at 128 cubic feet is about the size of 170 bundles like those sold outside of grocery stores. His supplier has raised prices almost 25 percent, to $410 a cord. To spare his customers, he said, he has raised prices only by $60 a cord, cutting into his profits.
There are several reasons for the slowdown. Fresh-cut wood doesn’t burn well because of its high water content, so most sellers air-dry their wood for an entire year, a process called seasoning. Due to frigid temperatures last winter and fear of a repeat this time around, the supplies of seasoned wood were gone by last fall, many firewood sellers said.
Fresh wood can be dried in giant kilns, which lowers their moisture content and takes just a few days. But kiln-dried wood is usually at least $100 per cord more expensive than seasoned wood, said Scott Salveson,director of the National Firewood Association in Duluth, Minn. It burns faster and less noisily than seasoned wood, which has earned it both fans and detractors; some customers prefer their fires to crackle more and burn slowly.
Charles Levesque, whose Peterborough, N.H., consulting company, Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC, specializes in forestry products, said higher demand from the region’s paper mills and biomass electricity generators also contributed to the shortage. About 14 percent of the wood harvested in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York is used for firewood, according to data from the North East State Foresters Association, while 18 percent is burned in biomass generators and 38 percent is used to make paper.
“They’re using essentially the same trees that go into firewood,” Levesque said. “It really comes down to who’s paying the most for what’s coming out of the woods.”
In the Boston area, where most wood is burned for an occasional cozy fire, stores have been able to keep their shelves stocked with kiln-dried firewood. But prices for kiln-dried are rising, as well; Jeffrey Coombs, whose Ossipee Mountain Land Co. harvests wood from 15,000 acres in Southern New Hampshire and supplies Whole Foods, Star Market, and many grocery stores in the Boston area, said that his wholesale prices have risen 15 to 20 percent.
“I’ve never seen it this tight, ever,” said Frank Healey, director of engineering at the Lenox Hotel in Boston, which burns through $700 worth of wood a week in more than 50 fireplaces. It’s a good thing his hotel uses kiln-dried wood, Healey said: His supplier, whom he refused to name, ran out of seasoned wood a month and a half ago.
Outside of Eastern Massachusetts, where many homes use fire-burning ovens as their primary or secondary source of heat in the winter, the shortage of seasoned firewood hits especially hard.
Pat Tarpey, a resident of Gilford, N.H., said four or five vendors she called did not have any seasoned firewood to sell. In recent years, she could buy it for $280 a cord. With kiln-dried wood close to $400 a cord, she said, her family had switched back to using heating oil.
Census data from 2013 show that 1.8 percent of Massachusetts households used wood as their main heat source, but that figure rises to 6.7 percent across other New England states. The number of New England residents who use cordwood or other wood products as their main heat source more than doubled from 2007 to 2012.
“Across the Midwest and the East, all our members are saying the same thing: How do we keep up with the demand?” said Salveson, of the National Firewood Association. “This is a perfect storm for firewood.”Jack Newsham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.