To Build a Fire?

Is burning firewood bad for fish? 

by Scott Sadil

With Northwest steelhead numbers at record lows, with neighborhood rivers suddenly closed to steelheading during what should be prime-time, dry-line sport, I decided, what the heck, I might as well get my annual stash of firewood.

Online I found a guy across the river with three cords of seasoned maple.  That’s about what I need.  I heat my house with the woodstove in the livingroom, heat my boat shop/garage with a classic little Jotul, heat my office – when temperatures outside really fall and the house stove isn’t quite enough – with a Dickinson boat stove mounted on a wall next to the bookshelves, the stainless flue running through the ceiling and out the roof; a clever bit of handiwork if I do say so myself.

I peeled off a handful of bills from cash I keep handy for tipping guides, talked to a neighbor about borrowing a trailer.  A few trips back and forth across the bridge and the wood was piled high at the top of the driveway, with another smaller pile on my brown, so-called front lawn.  

In a week the porch was loaded; wood lined the east side of the house. I got a friend to come by and help stack the last cord in the boat shed, empty until I finish the new one in the shop.  Labor Day weekend and already I had my firewood – a good feeling, despite the dismal state of the steelheading.  

About then, however, I began to wonder:  Am I part of the problem?

I hate to even consider such a thing.  I love heating with wood; I love burning wood, more so inside a glass-doored stove – another reason I decided decades ago I had no need for a television. In the shop, few things make me happier than collecting a bunch of hardwood scraps and tossing them into the Jotul’s glowing maw.  And starting a fire at dawn with a handful of shavings that piled up at my feet while shaping spars, with a few sticks of kindling split from Doug fir rounds, and then the chunks of hard maple stacked on top, gives me just as much pleasure as my morning coffee and steel-cut oats.

But is burning firewood bad for the planet – and, by extension, bad for what ails our sea-run fish?

The opinion of experts is mixed.  It’s hard not to catch scent, as well, of political fudging.  You have to heat.  Everything is a trade-off.  We know the impact of fossil fuels.  Locally, folks rely on electricity from dams – and it’s no secret the damage dams have done to runs of anadromous fish.

My buddy Joe Kelly, fisheries biologist and science teacher, dropped by for a wee dram so we could discuss the matter.  He pointed out plusses and minuses all around.  “The most we can do,” he argued, “is use what we use as efficiently as possible.”

Well, I’ve got my wood now, I thought.  I’m certainly going to burn it.  

Which means I’ll no doubt put off making any changes, if any changes are to come, until next year – an attitude, I sense, that contributes to the mess we’re in now.


Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil still wonders if it was a bad idea digging up and burning yucca roots to ward off the chill night air in the Baja deserts, decades ago.