A Western way of life slowly vanishes into clean air

Don King tosses a few more logs onto the heap of mixed hardwoods that fills the back of his Ford pickup, before heading off to make a delivery.

He's been in the firewood business for 20 years, toting cords of maple, cherry, elm and other hardwoods to surburban homes north of Denver. But many of the colleagues he's competed against are gone now. As wood-burning restrictions, both mandatory and voluntary, have multiplied around the West, a traditional symbol of the region has been slowly transforming.

The image of the wood-burning hearth in a Rocky Mountain home has become as much as part of Western lore as cypress in the South or the white sands of California. But pollution controls and the modernization of the region have made cozying up before a roaring fire an increasingly rare event.

In the six-county Denver metropolitan area, wood-burning bans are in effect roughly every other day during the winter, and state law now allows only gas-log fireplaces or EPA-certified wood stoves in new or remodeled homes.

Fireplaces are prohibited statewide in new homes in Washington, as well as in a growing number of communities in northern California, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, and Arizona.

In California's Bay Area, a voluntary no-burn program has existed since 1991.

Arizona's Maricopa County has been restricting wood-burning on high-pollution winter days since 1994.

In Colorado, the change can be traced to the late 1980s, when local governments began cracking down on residential wood-burning to help cut visible air pollution. Particulates, which account for about 80 percent of the Denver area's "brown cloud," are the main pollutant associated with wood smoke.

The new laws have made a difference, says Steve Gonzales, an environmental-protection specialist in the Denver Department of Environmental Health. "In 1993, the wood-burning contribution to visible pollution was 30 percent. Now, it's down to 5 percent," he says. "The trend we're seeing is cleaner air."

There are exceptions to the restrictions around Denver: homes that rely on wood-burning for their sole source of heat, and emergencies such as a broken furnace. And the ban doesn't prohibit EPA-certified wood stoves or modified fireplaces that incorporate pollution controls.

Such upgrades are expensive, though. And rather than invest thousands of dollars, most metropolitan residents simply opt not to burn wood. "People's wood-burning habits in this region have been dwindling down in the last 10 years," says Patrick Cummins, deputy director of the Regional Air Quality Council in Denver. "The heyday of wood-burning was in the 1980s, following the energy crisis. But after [wood smoke] started to be viewed as an air pollution problem, a large number of people gave up on fires altogether. Most people reserve them for special occasions."

Curling up in front of a fire also has moved out of vogue in our hurry-up world, Mr. Cummins adds. "Building a fire can be a hassle and a mess." Gas logs, by comparison, are lit with the flip of a switch, and there's no cleanup afterward.

Environmentally, the difference is likewise significant, says Terry Lee, spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in San Francisco. "A traditional fireplace puts out 200 grams of particulates per evening. Natural gas puts out less than a gram."

The district urges Bay Area residents to switch to gas fireplaces voluntarily. "There are 6.5 million people in the Bay Area, and 1 million homes with fireplaces," Lee says. "When there are a lot of people in a concentrated area, the effects [of wood-burning] really do add up, just like with automobile exhaust."

Yet the inviting ambience of a crackling hearth fire - with its sweet smoke aroma - is something that can't be replicated with gas logs, its devotees maintain. "It's always nicer to have a fire with good-quality wood. It looks better, and it's warmer," says King. "The gas logs look fake." As for air-quality concerns, King notes that hardwoods aren't as polluting as soft woods (like pine and spruce) because hardwoods burn hotter, and combust more completely.

King has that particular blend of hardiness, optimism, and determination that allows him to maintain a healthy client base while others report waning sales. A decade ago, Denver newspapers listed twice as many ads peddling firewood. But King is undaunted.

"There's always plenty of customers. It's easy," he says with a shrug. "You just give people the best wood you possibly can." It helps that a number of his customers live outside the six-county region that imposes no-burn days. Others are exempt because they use certified wood stoves to heat their homes. And lately, a new demand has appeared: People are stocking up in anticipation of the Y2K bug, as insurance against power failures.

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