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The Case Against Wood Fires
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Cesar Valdez
(PrimeZombie) - F

Locale: Scandinavia
The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 07:11:58 MDT Print View

I was completely ignorant to how harmful wood fires/wood smoke is until I recently read an article by one of my favorite non-fiction writers, Sam Harris. He was using wood fires as an analogy, which we can (and I think should) ignore for the purposes of this discussion.

But the point is that as a life-long fan of wood fires, and as someone that once identified with the whole bushcraft style of backpacking, I am now going to actively avoid wood fires. More importantly, I am going to try very hard to keep my children away from them. I can't say that I will never sit by a nice campfire for the rest of my life, especially in case of an emergency for heat/signaling... but what is learned cannot be unlearned:

"Because wood is among the most natural substances on earth, and its use as a fuel is universal, most people imagine that burning wood must be a perfectly benign thing to do. Breathing winter air scented by wood smoke seems utterly unlike puffing on a cigarette or inhaling the exhaust from a passing truck. But this is an illusion.

Here is what we know from a scientific point of view: There is no amount of wood smoke that is good to breathe. It is at least as bad for you as cigarette smoke, and probably much worse. (One study found it to be 30 times more potent a carcinogen.) The smoke from an ordinary wood fire contains hundreds of compounds known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, and irritating to the respiratory system. Most of the particles generated by burning wood are smaller than one micron—a size believed to be most damaging to our lungs. In fact, these particles are so fine that they can evade our mucociliary defenses and travel directly into the bloodstream, posing a risk to the heart. Particles this size also resist gravitational settling, remaining airborne for weeks at a time.

Once they have exited your chimney, the toxic gases (e.g. benzene) and particles that make up smoke freely pass back into your home and into the homes of others. (Research shows that nearly 70 percent of chimney smoke reenters nearby buildings.) Children who live in homes with active fireplaces or woodstoves, or in areas where wood burning is common, suffer a higher incidence of asthma, cough, bronchitis, nocturnal awakening, and compromised lung function. Among adults, wood burning is associated with more-frequent emergency room visits and hospital admissions for respiratory illness, along with increased mortality from heart attacks. The inhalation of wood smoke, even at relatively low levels, alters pulmonary immune function, leading to a greater susceptibility to colds, flus, and other respiratory infections. All these effects are borne disproportionately by children and the elderly.

The unhappy truth about burning wood has been scientifically established to a moral certainty: That nice, cozy fire in your fireplace is bad for you. It is bad for your children. It is bad for your neighbors and their children. Burning wood is also completely unnecessary, because in the developed world we invariably have better and cleaner alternatives for heating our homes. If you are burning wood in the United States, Europe, Australia, or any other developed nation, you are most likely doing so recreationally—and the persistence of this habit is a major source of air pollution in cities throughout the world. In fact, wood smoke often contributes more harmful particulates to urban air than any other source."


On the plus side, I will save around 100g leaving my Mora bushcraft knife at home, and just taking a simple little SAK.

I have a feeling that Justin Baker is not going to like this thread. ;)


Paul Mountford
(Sparticus) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic Canada
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 07:44:16 MDT Print View

Thoughts - When someone starts making bold statements like “Here is what we know from a scientific point of view”, and their reference is a blog post, my first thought is that the thread should be in Chaff.

Cesar Valdez
(PrimeZombie) - F

Locale: Scandinavia
Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 07:53:43 MDT Print View

Paul - Just to be clear, I didn't make any bold statements. The portion of text you quoted is from a large quote used of Harris. So it's his statement, and I would forward that it is not at all bold.

Here is another source, since you take issue with blogs, but if you knew anything about Harris, you would know that he is kind of a stickler for details and data:

Although wood smoke conjures up fond memories of sitting by a cozy fire, it is important to know that the components of wood smoke and cigarette smoke are quite similar, and that many components of both are carcinogenic. Wood smoke contains fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide and various irritant gases such as nitrogen oxides that can scar the lungs. Wood smoke also contains chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogens, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxin.
Wood smoke interferes with normal lung development in infants and children. It also increases children’s risk of lower respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
Wood smoke exposure can depress the immune system and damage the layer of cells in the lungs that protect and cleanse the airways.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), toxic air pollutants are components of wood smoke. Wood smoke can cause coughs, headaches, eye, and throat irritation in otherwise healthy people.
For vulnerable populations, such as people with asthma, chronic respiratory disease and those with cardiovascular disease, wood smoke is particularly harmful— even short exposures can prove dangerous.
The particles of wood smoke are extremely small and therefore are not filtered out by the nose or the upper respiratory system. Instead, these small particles end up deep in the lungs where they remain for months, causing structural damage and chemical changes. Wood smoke’s carcinogenic chemicals adhere to these tiny particles, which enter deep into the lungs.
Recent studies show that fine particles that go deep into the lungs increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. EPA warns that for people with heart disease, short- term exposures have been linked to heart attacks and arrhythmias. If you have heart disease, these tiny particles may cause you to experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, and fatigue."

Randy Martin
(randalmartin) - F

Locale: Colorado
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 07:55:17 MDT Print View

I am not a fan of wood fires for a much simpler reason. I hate the smell of smoke. It's like glue and sticks to everything. Is there a certain beauty and peace in watching a wood fire burn, certainly. However, for me it doesn't overcome my hatred of smoke.

Willie Evenstop
(redmonk) - F

Locale: Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 08:01:37 MDT Print View

Hopefully people read this and understand the seriousness of the situation.
Wood fires, power plants, cars, and our entire culture of carcinogenic pollution is the problem.
I don't think anywhere within 5 miles of a road has clean air anymore.
Riding a bike isn't healthy, it is just huffing exhaust fumes.

We need to return to the Amish lifestyle, or as close to it as we can.


Paul Mountford
(Sparticus) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic Canada
Re: Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 08:22:25 MDT Print View

Cesar – let me re-phrase:

Thoughts - When someone puts forward a bold statement from a third party like “Here is what we know from a scientific point of view”, and their reference is questionable science in a blog post, my first thought is that the thread should be in Chaff.

Better now?

Edited by Sparticus on 05/21/2013 08:23:01 MDT.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 08:26:22 MDT Print View

I haven't made a campfire while backpacking is decades. This was not for health or environmental reasons. It is mostly because a campfire cuts you off from your surroundings. You become isolated from your environment, living in a small concentric glow-world, unable to see into the contrasting darkness of night. And this seems to be counter to the reason I go bacpacking, which is to immerse myself in the wilderness.

A campfire is inefficient for cooking (compared to a stove), cookware gets sooty, only warms one side of you, not to mention that smoke gets in your eyes. A campfire requires time to build and maintain, time that could be better spent observing the night sky or nocturnal animals -- animals that would otherwise avoid coming near you or your campfire.

A communal campfire for a group is a nice socializing gathering point. But I rarely hike with a group. A fire is good for drying clothes or equipment should you unfortunately get them wet.

A campfire is wonderful when camping with children; especially if you remembered to bring hot dogs, marshmallows, Hershey bars, and Graham crackers.

I took my children camping more than most kids get to go, and we always had a campfire. It is a wonderful opportunity to bond and connect with your children, and frequent camping with the "obligatory" campfire are those touch points in life that can build character in kids, should you connect and communicate with your kids.

Like anything else in life, sitting in front of a campfire, moderation is they key. But who among us is sitting in front of a campfire the majority of their lives?

Joyce and I rarely build a campfire, and we probably camp more often than most folks. But on occassion, a campfire is a special place for us to share intimate time together.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 08:50:07 MDT Print View

I think they're more talking about people heating their house with wood fire

Campfire - stay up wind of fire. If you're in a campground with many other people with campfires, then people will breath each other's smoke, which is not good

Back in old days, they oriented houses to take advantage of sun and other natural sources. With cheap energy we orient houses for aesthetic reasons and to just pack in as many as possible. Need to go back to orienting houses to take advantage of natural sources, but that's difficult with an existing housing tract.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 09:38:09 MDT Print View

...versus The Case Against Complete Domestication of the Species.

Ian B.

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 09:46:01 MDT Print View

I shopped for a woodstove but decided against it for a number of reasons. Among my concerns were how inefficient they are and their emissions. I spoke with the sales person about how I could mitigate the emissions problem and they tried to sell me some sort of catalytic brick(?) which would allow for the stove to burn cleaner. The catch.... the element would need to be replaced every year at a cost of $700.

I have no scientific data to back up my assumption but it seems that these systems could be improved with a better combustion chamber. After reviewing some articles and videos on Thermal Mass Stoves, they seem to solve this problem or at least mitigate it.

We are plagued with inversions here in eastern Washington. These happen during some of our coldest days which are coincidently the same days the farmers are burning motor oil in their smudge pots and home owners are running their woodstoves. All of that smoke hovers near the ground at the chagrin of asthmatics everywhere.

There is some talk in Washington of regulating these stoves. I'm torn on this issue. I'm not fond of an intrusive government but I'm also not a fan of insensitive homeowners/farmers imposing themselves on the private citizens around them either.

Back on topic! Like most here on BPL, I rarely build a campfire unless I'm with my kids or car camping. I have no doubt that campfires (& charcoal BBQs) are not healthy for the lungs but since we a) infrequently enjoy them, and b) have a 100% guarantee of death, I'm not going to swear off of them.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 09:57:30 MDT Print View

At least don't run your wood stove way damped down.

Better to run it hot with lots of air flow and then let it burn down with just coals, then throw some more wood on it if you must...

Good for bringing your house up to a warm temperature in the morning, rather than just burning it on low all day to keep house warm.

Fitz Travels
Examples on 05/21/2013 10:15:12 MDT Print View

"because in the developed world we invariably have better and cleaner alternatives for heating our homes."


K ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Re: Examples on 05/21/2013 10:27:26 MDT Print View

Plug something into the wall; from power tools to cars! The charge you get is clean, emission free and best of all it comes all the way from Narnia.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Re: Re: Examples on 05/21/2013 10:42:39 MDT Print View

Plug something into the wall; from power tools to cars! The charge you get is clean, emission free and best of all it comes all the way from Narnia."


I thought it came from magic beanfields....

Ian B.

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: Examples on 05/21/2013 10:43:30 MDT Print View

Narnia electricity is the BEST!

I'll have to do some digging but there was what appeared to be a relatively unbiased article on the topic if plug in hybrids or electric cars were truly cleaner since the energy source still has a carbon footprint (I can never say "carbon footprint" and look at myself in the mirror afterwards). The author's opinion, even when using coal energy, was that they were. I'll post the link in an edit if I can find it. I'm an admittedly dull person but it was interesting to read.

As far as campfires, heating houses, and other gold medal thread drift misplaced chaff threads go..... I'm sure there are cleaner ways to heat a home or a hiker but nothing (synthetic insulation to furnaces which run on bunny rabbit giggles) are consequence free.

One of the major energy problems IMO is it seems that 90% of the focus has been on supply and relatively little on demand (says the man who traded in his Prius and drives a truck).

Edited by IDBLOOM on 05/21/2013 10:53:50 MDT.

Cesar Valdez
(PrimeZombie) - F

Locale: Scandinavia
Re: Re: Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 10:44:55 MDT Print View

Paul - Not quite. You are smuggling in a counter-claim, which is that the science that Harris is citing is "questionable." You will need to demonstrate this for your point to follow, i.e single out a specific claim of Harris that is questionable or false. About this thread being in Chaff, I am indifferent. Only interested in having discourse on the subject. And so far I must say there has been some good posts.

Jim H
(jraiderguy) - M

Locale: Puget Sound
@ Ian (yes, this is off topic) on 05/21/2013 11:15:45 MDT Print View

In terms of electric versus gasoline cars, a lot of the talk when I was in school a few years ago was about life cycle cost, in terms of dollars, joules, carbon emissions, or other metrics.

Electric cars most definitely have a "carbon footprint." It includes both the emissions related to the production of the vehicle, as well as the emissions from the powerplant which generated the electricity used to charge the battery while in your driveway. Whether or not the carbon footprint of an electric vehicle is more or less than a gasoline vehicle is dependent on circumstance. If Washington (or western WA anyways) your residential electricity may come from hydropower. If so, the "carbon footprint" calculated for your Prius might be significantly less than a someone living next to a coal fired plan rather than a dam. The equation changes again for nuclear, or wind, or solar. And of course, measuring carbon cost isn't the only relevant environmental metric. What about nuclear tailings, or reduced salmon runs, etc.

The point being that there's a movement in academia to capture total life cycle energy and environmental cost. Currently, it is quite easily for a manufacturer to "greenwash" their products by focusing on one metric which sounds environmentally beneficial but which may obfuscate other environmental externalities. Externalities being the general term for a side effect of a product or process not reflected in the cost of the product or process - i.e. you don't pay for the cost of your carbon emissions when you buy a car, but in theory society bares the burden of those costs.

One of the major obstacles to energy supply advancement is still storage of energy. We currently don't have a good way of storing energy for long periods. Batteries don't scale up well, and they are costly, so most solar farms only yield energy during the day. This is why coal fired plants and nuclear plants are efficient compared to wind and solar, because on-demand production is much easier to control with coal and nuclear. This is also why hydropower is cost effective, because we can use dams to store potential energy at the top of the hill and spill from the dam in the afternoon/evenings when everyone turns on their appliances.

Ian B.

Locale: PNW
Re: @ Ian (yes, this is off topic) on 05/21/2013 11:28:04 MDT Print View

And windmills kill eagles etc. Lots of hidden costs.

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 11:38:08 MDT Print View

Fires in chimneys here every night in my neighborhood. Cheap, dry heat. Very popular here. Everything good has a bad side.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: (yes, this is off topic) on 05/21/2013 11:40:55 MDT Print View

"This is also why hydropower is cost effective, because we can use dams to store potential energy at the top of the hill and spill from the dam in the afternoon/evenings when everyone turns on their appliances."

Hydro is a by-product of sequestering water, and "cheap power" was an often used argument during the Bureau's pork barrel days. But power production is about 13th on the priorities list, way after agriculture and recreation. If you were to run the cost of the (government built) infrastructure against the power produced it would be grim. (The Columbia River Basin might be an exception.) Hydro Is excellent at adjusting to rapidly fluctuating demands - e.g. the 3pm air conditioner spike in LA.

Edited by greg23 on 05/21/2013 11:43:21 MDT.