Winter begins in less than two weeks, but wood stoves across the Hi-Line are being fired up already, and some people want to make sure the wood burners follow the rules for safety and consideration for people around them.
Last Thursday, at the Chinook City Council meeting, Police Chief Mark Weber told the council he had received complaints about people burning wood that is too wet in their wood stoves, filling the town with a thick shroud of offensive smoke in surrounding blocks.
Council members Heath Richman and Jack Conner told Weber they were concerned about having the city tell people what they can and can’t burn in their own stoves.
According to stove salesman at and owner of Frontier Spas and Stoves Ken Riska and Hill County Sanitarian Clay Vincent, burning wet wood is a bad idea and not just because of its effects on everyone within a block or two.
“My biggest concern is that first off, people need to take into consideration their neighbors, ” Vincent said. “That smoke can go in their windows, or the warm air returns into their house, and they really don’t like have that smoke in their house.
“A little consideration for the people around them goes a long way. ”
The problem can go beyond an upset neighbor, though, Vincent warned.
Air quality enforcement from Helena can get involved if the problem gets to the point that someone complains.
Vincent said that legal action can be taken if the smoke is a nuisance. Criminal charges can be filed if the smoke is a public nuisance or a lawsuit filed if a neighbor decides to sue.
Ken Riska knows stoves. He sells and installs them. And he says that burning wet wood also causes problems for the person burning because of creosote, “the black stuff that builds up in pipes and causes chimney fires.
“If you burn wet wood, you’ll get a lot of it and your chances of a chimney fire go up dramatically. ”
He said that there are measures people can take to cut down on creosote build-up but really “it comes down to burning dry wood. ”
Havre Fire Chief Dave Sheppard said they respond to about a half dozen chimney fire calls in a given year. There have already been two reported so far this season.
Sheppard has a few tips to help people keep an eye out for chimney fires.
“Some of the warning signs of a chimney fire are sucking sounds, a loud roar, sometimes the pipes will shake a little bit, ” Sheppard said. “Obviously call the fire department and if you can, it’s a good idea to cut off the oxygen supply to the fire, closing the dampers. ”
He also recommends having a smoke detector as well.
Riska has a few rules of thumb for wood-burners to check if the wood is ready to burn without increasing fire risk unnecessarily.
“If you hit it with an axe and you can see sap or it doesn’t split down the middle, ” Riska said that means it is too wet.
Such a test, Riska said, should be asked of whoever people buy wood from. Buyers should “make the guy split it in front of you.”
One way that Riska recommends to make sure there is dry wood to buy is “don’t wait until the last minute, because that (wet wood) is what you’re going to get. Pay attention to what you’re getting. ”
He knows some people around the area have wood hauled in by the semi-trailer load, for about $1,000 a load, which comes to about $15 or $16 a cord, “not too bad a price” Riska said.
One option to keep smoke under control is to use a newer catalytic stove, that traps and re-burns the smoke, for more heat and less emissions.
Such stoves are more efficient and more popular in areas like the western part of the state where “inversions” allow cold air to trap smoke and other pollution in a valley.
While inversions are not as much of a problem on the Hi-Line, as Vincent points out, without the same valleys and with more winds than Missoula or other areas face, the new stoves still help heat more effectively.
The Environmental Protection Agency recognizes that efficiency and, on its stove-centric website www.epa.gov/burnwise, advertises a $300 tax credit people can claim by buying a newer stove with EPA certification.
Chinook’s council didn’t take any action on the subject at their meeting.
The Danger of Refurbished Stoves
Ken Riska knows a thing or two about stoves and how to safely install them, as the owner of Frontier Spas and Stoves.
This experience leads Riska to be concerned about people buying refurbished wood stoves.
According to Riska, there is at least one person around Havre who is taking old wood stoves, fixing them up and then selling them to people to help them overcome the harsh colds of winter.
Every stove that Riska sells comes with a “spec plate” that the manufacturer puts on the back with information about the the stove, what it is capable of and how it can be used safely.
The stoves Riska has run into from this refurbishing salesman do not have these plates.
Without safety guidelines the law requires that the stove be installed at least three feet from any wall to make sure it’s safe, Riska said, adding that is same thing said by fire departments and insurance companies.
It may be inconvenient to have a wood stove installed so far into a room, but according to Riska, there is no choice unless the stove has the spec panel on the back, which are guaranteed to be on the back of new stoves.
The refurbished ones might be a bit cheaper than new ones, but the Environmental Protection Agency hopes to help make new stoves more affordable with a $300 tax credit for efficient stove purchases.