If you live around Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear Lake or anywhere in the San Bernardino Mountains, you’ve got more than you can shake a stick at.
The devastating four-year drought and an infestation by a tiny pest called the bark beetle have forced crews to cut thousands of dead and dying trees to reduce the chance of a disastrous wildfire. This has created a glut of cheap firewood, mostly pine, sending prices plummeting by nearly 50%.
“I’ve got all the pine I can use,” said Terri Hillman at Mountain Firewood in Big Bear Lake, where a cord, or 128 cubic feet, of firewood has dropped to $125 from $245 last year. “It’s a big problem.”
The glut was created by government and private contractors who have been cutting about 400 tons of timber a day in the parched forests of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Most of that wood has been burned in incinerators that San Bernardino County crews began operating last week. A smaller portion has been buried in a Redlands landfill. But 15 to 20 tons a day has been cut and split into lengths just right for firewood.
Andy Acosta’s firewood business in Big Bear Lake has firewood stacked nearly 20 feet high. Within a few weeks, he said, he won’t have any more room at his yard.
“Most of this wood is going to rot before it can get used up,” he said in disgust.
The wood glut would generally be a blessing for those who love a toasty evening by the fireplace, except that pine is not considered the best wood for burning.
Pine tends to burn too fast and leave a residue in chimneys and wood-burning stoves. Mountain residents who rely on firewood to heat their homes prefer eucalyptus, ash or oak, which burn hotter and cleaner, but cost more. A cord of eucalyptus, for example, sells for $200 to $290.
Also, few people think about stockpiling firewood in the summer. Even in the San Bernardino Mountains, where most homes rely on firewood for home heating, daytime temperatures have been 90 degrees and higher this month.
“Right now, firewood is the furthest thing from my mind,” said Lil Wittman, co-owner of the Big Bear Mountain Brewery in Big Bear Lake. She said she will probably wait until fall to stock up.
Besides, with the wildfire risk at its highest, she said she doesn’t want a mountain of dry pinewood in her backyard.
But the cheap pine is ideal for tourists and those who simply want the romantic ambience of a one- or two-hour blaze. It is also good for campfires, although forestry officials have imposed strict restrictions on campfires, limiting them to campsites and picnic areas in the national forest.
Still, many residents who are not too picky about their firewood say they may stock up in light of predictions that natural gas prices will climb this winter.
Mike Marcotte, a 13-year resident of Big Bear Lake, said he and his family don’t use much pine to heat their home because it typically burns twice as fast as other hardwoods. But if the price of pine drops enough to make it worth hauling twice as much wood to his house, he said he might take advantage of the glut.
“I would have to fill my whole backyard,” he said. “It would have to be really cheap to be worth it.”
The glut began to grow several months ago as government and private contractors began cutting down thousands of drought-weakened trees that had been infested by the bark beetle. The tiny pest bores into the bark by the thousand, cutting off a tree’s circulatory system. The infestation also creates a fungus that leaves a blue stain on the wood, making it undesirable to lumber mills.
The downed trees that are infested are safe to burn, according to experts, because the beetle does not bore deeply into the trunk and usually abandons the tree before it is dead and felled.
Crews are cutting more than 400 tons of timber from the San Bernardino Mountains, with most of it burned at two incinerators at Burnt Flats, about 20 miles north of Lake Arrowhead. The massive contraptions, called air curtain destructors, burn about 15 tons an hour.
In the past, private contractors who have been allowed to harvest good-quality timber from the mountain have hauled it to a mill in Terra Bella, north of Bakersfield. But officials say the price for pine lumber has also dropped, making it unprofitable for contractors to haul the wood to the mill 220 miles away.
But the abundance of pine is good news for some. Chris King, a chain-saw sculptor who lives in Big Bear Lake, said he doesn’t have to worry about finding material for his creations. He carves bears, eagles and other wildlife as big as 15 feet tall. In the past, King would have to buy his wood from firewood businesses or tree-removal firms. Now, he said, those companies give him all the wood he needs.
“This year, it is a lot easier to get,” King said. “Things have really changed.”