Using fire is so instinctual that even the image creates calm in humans. Despite having a million year history with fire, we must learn before we burn. Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment tells us that in the Salt Lake valley wood burning may cause as much particulate matter as all the cars on the road. Wood smoke is twelve times more carcinogenic than second hand cigarette smoke and will even creep into the homes of neighbors. These metaphors bring awareness to the dangers of wood smoke, but create a disconnect for those who want to understand how these claims were derived.
I am opposed to open fires. Conventional fireplaces built into homes lose more heat than they provide while burning a fire. When fires are burned during outdoor gatherings I am uncomfortable and feel powerless. It is disheartening to me when I see lumber burning that could be used to build with. My discomfort also arises when seeing lumber burning that has been treated or painted. I also make the connection between the smoke and being advised to avoid outdoor winter exercise. My discomfort is further increased knowing the end result is that most of the heat from the fire goes directly up.
Even EPA certified wood stoves lose a significant amount of heat through the chimney. In order to keep the smoke going up the chimney, typical wood stoves push exhaust out of the house at 300 degrees. Any heat loss is also accompanied by pollution and creosote.
There is such a thing as a truly smokeless burn. This is where using thoroughly dried wood, all of the wood and wood gases are combusted. An example of this is the rocket mass heater. A rocket mass heater is designed for total combustion for home heating. This design was discovered through rocket stoves, which restrict air intake to ideal levels and allow for the wood gas to be combusted without the wood getting in the way. The rocket mass heater sends exhaust through a thermal mass that holds heat for days.
Perhaps the proposed ban on wood burning in the Salt Lake Valley would make a huge difference in our quality of life. We must be aware of the hazards of wood burning smoke and make the connection of party fires to our poor air quality. Let’s not write off wood as a fuel. We need designers to work with regulators to research and permit these DIY technologies. When considering the entire life cycle of fuels, an emissions free exhaust along with sustainable harvesting would make wood burning a worthy competitor.