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Demand for Pest-Free Firewood Heating Up

Parks and campgrounds urging heat-treatment certification

Federal and state natural resource agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation want to expand availability of government-certified firewood at public campgrounds.

Public lands managers are looking to put a damper on fires made from wood that hasn’t undergone heat treatment beforehand. For that reason, hauling unapproved firewood into a state park or federal recreation area might become a thing of the past in the not-too-distant future.

Their aim is to impede the spread of tree-threatening non-native creepy-crawlies, like the emerald ash borer and longhorned beetles, both indigenous to Asia, as well as the gypsy moth and gold spotted oak borer, which are unwelcome guests to Tennessee from, respectively, Europe and the southwestern United States.

“All these things have been introduced — that’s why we call them invasive,” said Greg Aydelotte, who administers plant protection and quarantine procedures for the USDA.

Aydelotte was one of several forest-health specialists who delivered presentations in Cookeville this spring during a seminar on the certification process. The goal of the May 25 conference, attended by about 50 people, was to cultivate interest in the certification program among would-be Upper Cumberland wood-products entrepreneurs.

“Emerald ash borer tends to be the one that we handle in most situations involving firewood,” Aydelotte said. “People will bring firewood from long distances.”

For that reason, campgrounds are often suspected as a point of entry when invasive pests spread into areas that were previously free of them.

According to a TDEC information sheet on the state’s “Don’t Move Firewood” campaign, “Native trees have defenses against insects and diseases that they’ve been living with for millions of years. Likewise, native predators eat native insects, keeping their numbers in check. Non-native insects and diseases have no predators in their new homes and the trees have no natural defenses against them. Because these foreign bugs don’t have anything stopping them, they reproduce rapidly, killing thousands of trees in their wake.”

All Tennessee State Parks now adhere to a certified-firewood-only “policy” — although it’s not actually a state law, according to TDEC spokeswoman Kim Schofinski.

State park managers also don’t want people bringing untreated wood in from the surrounding vicinity. TDEC officials believe areas near Tennessee state parks may in some cases already have infestations of invasive forests pests, even if they’re as yet undetected.

“We encourage campground and cabin guests to follow this policy in the effort to stem the spread of invasive pests that damage our forests,” Schofinski wrote in an email to Center Hill Sun. “This is a joint education effort with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry and the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. National Parks also have firewood policies in place.”

Campers are still allowed to make fires using “dead material on the ground” or “downed wood collected inside the park, near the campsite.” However, in many circumstances such fuel is scarce near high-use camping areas, or gathering it may in fact be prohibited in some places.

Park and campground managers are encouraging private vendors to fill the void by selling more certified heat-treated wood that’s “clearly marked with a state/federal seal.”

Obtaining a government seal of approval — and with it, an official online listing by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture as a certified-firewood seller — requires signing a compliance agreement and acquiring a firewood-heating system, which in turn must undergo periodic inspection by regulators.

To ensure the firewood is heated to at least 140 degrees for 60 minutes, as required for the certification, temperature probes are inserted into individual sticks of firewood throughout the kiln.

“We’re looking for the center to reach those temperatures,” said Heather Slayton, a forest health and sustainability expert for the state Division of Forestry who has been delivering presentations around Tennessee on the firewood-certification program. “The probes are put randomly throughout your kiln, and every single one of the probes have to pass the certification.”

Slayton said there are a number of “turnkey” kilns available on the market, but homemade rigs and systems work just fine, too. Woodland property owners, farmers, loggers and anybody else that might have access to a steady supply of fuel-timber is encouraged to get into the firewood-selling game.

Constructing a homemade kiln-heating mechanism is perfectly acceptable. “We’re not certifying the kiln design,” said Slayton. “Build it how ever you want to build it.”

The central requirement is that certification regulators verify that it’s heating the wood sufficiently, and for the appropriate period of time, to terminate all unwanted bugs and their larva, she said.

According to the USDA, heat treatment procedures may employ steam, hot water, kilns or any other method that raises the center of the wood to 140 degrees for a full hour.

“It doesn’t have to be high-tech,” said Slayton. “But you do have to be able to monitor your temperatures and write them down. If you’re going to build your own, you need to make sure you think about how the thermodynamics work.”

If the kiln isn’t insulated properly or doesn’t allow for appropriate air circulation to disperse the heat, it may fail when put to the test by the certifying agents. “You’ve got to hit those temperature thresholds,” said Slayton.

Retail sellers of certified firewood include big-box stores like Lowes, Home Depot, Gander Mountain, Academy Sports, as well as numerous other smaller vendors like grocery stores and gas stations, she said.

While the number of certified firewood-drying kilns in Tennessee is still relatively small, Slayton said she’s “working extremely hard to raise that number so folks can buy Tennessee-produced certified firewood as opposed to out of state producers.”

If you’d like to get more information about the procedures for certification, contact Ms. Slayton at heather.slayton@tn.gov.