As water freezes in toilet bowls and ice is scraped from car windows, there is no denying that keeping houses warm is serious business in Canberra.
- Demand for firewood has skyrocketed this winter as temperatures drop below 0 degrees Celsius
- While wood fires are more environmentally friendly than gas heaters, they still contribute to climate change
- But the increase in wood fires and burning of improper wood is contributing to air pollution, and causing health problems for some Canberrans
Between now and 2045, the ACT government is phasing out gas in favour of electricity, and residents are being actively encouraged through rebate schemes to give up their wood-fired heaters.
But it seems Canberrans are not heeding the calls. With months of cold weather still to come, firewood is in short supply in Canberra, and fireplace sales have increased as much as 12 per cent in the past financial year.
For asthmatics and environmentalists, the uptake of wood fires and increased level of smoke in the atmosphere is of concern.
But, the wood fire industry maintains there is a sustainable way forward with better education and tighter rules around wood supply.
Demand for firewood on the rise
Peter Dimmock has been selling firewood in Canberra for more than 30 years. This winter, he can not keep up with demand.
“Our stocks are very low,” he said.
Mr Dimmock said that was due, in part, to delays getting stock out of Queensland, thanks to wet weather and border closures.
But he said there was also a growing demand for wood heaters, even from those who previously accessed the rebate scheme to move toward alternatives.
“A lot of customers are telling me they took up the rebate, and they weren’t happy with heat coming from gas and electricity and weren’t happy with the cost of gas and electricity over firewood, and some people have actually gone back to putting wood fires in their homes,” Mr Dimmock said.
It is a similar story at fireplace retailers.
“We’ve found this year, at the end of this financial year, wood fire [sales] are up about 12 per cent,” manager of Fyshwick Home and Heating Lewis Gonzalez said.
He said modern fireplaces were significantly more sustainable than their predecessors, and that using the right wood reduced the level of smoke released into the atmosphere.
Both Mr Gonzalez and Mr Dimmock said the burning of green wood was an ongoing issue and there were calls for stricter policing of those who sell the low-quality product, which both causes more pollution and does not burn as hot or as long as untreated wood.
“If you burn wood that is seasoned well, you don’t actually get much smoke,” Mr Dimmock said.
The science behind wood fires
Director of the ANU’s Institute for Climate, Energy & Disaster Solutions Mark Howden said that while wood fires were better than gas heaters, they still contributed to climate change.
“When we take wood from a forest and then burn it, we transfer the carbon in the forest into the atmosphere, so we add to climate change and there are other greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide in the smoke,” he said.
He also noted that in the ACT, where electricity is effectively 100 per cent renewable, burning wood fires released carbon that would otherwise be avoided through electric heating.
“[But] it’s a lower-emissions option than a natural gas heating system, so it’s definitely better than if you’ve got a gas system — but I wouldn’t give it a net-zero type framing.”
Asthmatics seal themselves in
Weston Creek resident Michelle Weston is one of many asthmatics worried about air quality.
She said she had particularly struggled this winter as wood heaters fired up.
“I couldn’t reliably open a window for fresh air, I couldn’t sleep, the air was really thick with smoke inside, I couldn’t use my clothesline and air dry my clothes,” she said.
“People are being deprived of the fresh air in their homes, in the place where they live,” she said.
The geographical characteristics of Canberra mean if smoke settles on a clear night, it will not be blown away.
In fact, for weeks during the Black Summer fires, the national capital had the world’s worst air quality among all cities that publish records.
The ACT government said, for this reason, there are a number of suburbs where wood fires are prohibited.
But Ms Weston does not live in one of those areas.
“It is a helpless feeling,” she said.
“I like this suburb, this area, it’s a great place to live, but I have no choice about what’s being pumped out at me.”
ACT Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti said there was currently no plan to crack down on the use of wood fire heaters.
“We are encouraging people to look at different ways of heating their home, particularly recognising that wood fire smoke does have health and environmental impacts,” Ms Vassarotti said.