Jim Lewis is pretty busy for a guy who runs a side business from his back yard.
His business booms when the season turns: The Somis-area avocado rancher has spent the last 10 winters peddling cords of firewood to all comers by way of a tiny, two-line newspaper ad.
“I thought I was supposed to be retired,” said Lewis, who drove a hook-and-ladder truck for the Los Angeles City Fire Department for 30 years before turning his attention to ranching and wood chopping.
“But these eight-day weeks and 25-hour days are getting pretty long.”
For Lewis and other woodcutters, business is briskest between November and February, with weather playing a pivotal role in sales volumes.
“If it’s cold, your phone just rings off the hook,” said Gene Boyd, who owns a tree service in Camarillo and dabbles each season in firewood sales.
But the competition gets stiffer each year, wood dealers say, forcing many to cut their rates or look elsewhere for new markets.
“In L.A., I get $350 to $400 a cord, depending on how far I have to go to deliver it,” said George Gamboa, who owns Best Tree Service in Ventura. “I bought 200 cords and I’m sitting on about 75 cords, so there’s good money in it.”
Gamboa makes most of his money trimming and pruning trees and landscaping grounds for his local clients.
But since the Ventura County Board of Supervisors passed a law last year that prohibits cutting down sycamores and oaks, Gamboa said outlaw wood choppers are threatening his livelihood.
So Gamboa, who said he buys most of his oak in Northern California and has it trucked here, sells the bulk of his firewood across the county line.
“Oak has always been the big seller,” he said. “I’ve seen it in this county for as low as $185. With what it costs me to ship it, I can’t compete with that.”
He has complained to local authorities to no avail. Officials say they must catch an illegal woodcutter in the act.
“I wouldn’t at all doubt the truth of what he’s saying,” said Todd Collart, the former Ventura councilman who works as a zoning manager in the county Planning Department.
“But we don’t have any specific leads, so it would take a stakeout to try and apprehend somebody,” he said. “We don’t have the people to do that.”
No one has been cited under the new law, a misdemeanor that carries penalties of up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail, Collart said.
Prices vary for a cord of wood--which is 128 cubic feet, or roughly enough to fill the bed of a light pickup truck--depending on the quality and variety of the fuel.
For instance, Lewis sells a cord of avocado wood for $100, delivered. Eucalyptus sells for $180, the same amount charged by Boyd, the Camarillo firewood dealer.
“I haven’t met anybody that got rich cutting firewood,” Boyd said. “It’s a way to make a living if you work hard.”
At the Camarillo Feed Store, customers readily pay $225 for the same amount of eucalyptus.
“I’m the highest price in Ventura County,” admits Happy Muller, who owns the feed and supply outlet. “But my customers come back because they know they’re going to get an honest measurement and they know they’re going to get a good product.”
Muller fetches Los Angeles rates--$350 a cord--for his top-quality red oak.
“It’s an extremely hard wood that burns slow and puts out a lot of heat,” he said. “It’s famous for barbecuing and smoking because you get a tremendous flavor from it.”
Muller bristles at the thought of warming himself at a campfire using anything but the best.
“When you burn avocado, it burns just like balsa wood,” he said. “It ends up being a pile of ashes, not heat.”
Not everyone in the wood and tree business, however, is so earnest about the fuel they burn in their fireplaces. Tommy Turnbull of Tommy’s Tree in Camarillo doesn’t even bother with firewood.
“I give away as much as anybody wants, as long as they come pick it up,” said Turnbull, whose primary business is pruning, landscaping and tree removal.
“By the time you cut it, bring it to a yard, split it up and try to sell it, you’ve got 15 to 20 man hours in it,” he said. “It’s cheaper for me to give it away than to deal with it.”