Wood Banks Are Filling in America's Heating Gap This Winter

Home heating prices have gone up since last year, prompting people to turn to an age-old method to keep their homes warm.

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Daniel Overstreet, 9, right, and his sister, Esther Overstreet, 11, chop firewood in their backyard, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, in Greenville, S.C.
Daniel Overstreet, 9, right, and his sister, Esther Overstreet, 11, chop firewood in their backyard, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, in Greenville, S.C.
Photo: Rainier Ehrhardt (AP)

The cost of living throughout the U.S. is on the rise, including what households must pay to stay warm throughout the winter. This has pushed more Americans to rely on firewood from wood banks to heat their homes, a new report from the Guardian outlines.

The average gas bill has gone up more than 25% this winter compared to last year, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Natural gas is the primary source of home heating throughout the country, and less than 2% of homes across the U.S. use wood for heat, according to the data. But that number goes up in rural communities, the Guardian reported. This is especially true in cooler parts of the country that have readily available wooded areas, like New England. Having access to donated wood from wood banks has made heating more affordable.

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These banks function a lot like food banks—firewood that is often donated to the bank is given out to households in need. There are over 100 wood banks throughout the country, according to the USDA. Many source firewood from felled trees, from individuals, and even from forestry agencies, the Guardian reported. Some states have their own firewood programs to support households that do not have access to other forms of heating. Massachusetts has a Community Wood Bank Program that provides information on how residents can volunteer to support state wood banks, where to find locations, and how someone can start their own bank.

“13,000 rural households in Massachusetts experience energy insecurity,” the webpage explains. “Communities with abundant roadside hazard trees and working woodlands have the potential to meet this critical public health need with firewood produced by local organizations.”

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Federal agencies have supported wood banks and wood donations, too. In October 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service gave out more than $700,000 to support wood banks. “For many tribal and rural communities across the country, firewood is the primary source of heat,” said Forest Service Chief Randy Moore in a press release. “The Alliance for Green Heat and the firewood banks they serve will improve access to renewable wood energy, helping those without access to this life saving resource when they need it the most.”

Using firewood for heating has some ecological benefits. Wood that would otherwise go to waste can be used to help heat homes. Invasive insects like the emerald ash borer have killed hardwood trees throughout the Northeast, but wood banks can use that wood, which would otherwise discarded, the Guardian notes. However, burning firewood for warming has some risks. The tiny particles that are created through burning wood pollute indoor air. Exposure to those particles is associated with respiratory issues like asthma and bronchitis, according to the EPA. But as heating costs continue to rise, many households in the U.S. don’t have much of a choice.

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“I feel bad supplying firewood, when what they should be doing is going to cleaner sources of heating their homes,” Tony Aman, the co-founder of Downeast Wood Bank, told the Guardian. “But when you’re stretched for money, especially if you’re in poverty or disabled, it makes it very difficult to afford that conversion.”

Aman predicted that supply for wood from wood banks will increase by this March after some households have burned through most of their current supply.