A wood stove swap-out is helping clear the air in rural Whatcom County

Smoke inversion is a big factor in air quality in eastern Whatcom County’s Columbia Valley. A clip from drone footage captured in October 2019 by Whatcom Fire District 14 above the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center near Kendall illustrates the intensity of the problem.

By Matt Benoit

— Nearly every day at Whatcom County Fire District 14’s Kendall station house, training officer David Moe checks the Northwest Clean Air Agency website. He looks for the latest air quality numbers for the Columbia Valley, represented by a color-coded wheel with six categories ranging from “good” green to “hazardous” brown. 

He then walks outside to the air quality sign standing prominently out front and moves a black gauge to the color corresponding to the website.

On this winter day, it’s pointed to yellow, indicating “moderate” air quality.  Some cold days, the gauge climbs up the scale into “unhealthy” zones, and residents are asked to avoid or limit their wood stove use — in the face of temperatures near or even below freezing.

Not every community has an air quality gauge, but Whatcom County’s Columbia Valley does. A prevalence of wood stoves for home heating and the area’s particular geography and topography interact to drive the gauge into “unhealthy” zones some days. A program to swap leaky older wood stoves for efficient new ones is helping residents maintain health and save money, and improving air quality throughout the valley. (Matt Benoit photo © 2020)

While it might be easy to assume rural Whatcom County locations like Kendall would have consistently better air quality than a larger urban environment like Bellingham, that isn’t necessarily the case.

“Some people deny that it’s a problem,” Moe said of the area’s air pollution. “But if you wait for those certain days, and you sit in the middle of the Kendall highway, and you look down the road and you can’t see the other end of the road, then yes, there’s a problem.”

The tree-dense Columbia Valley, flanked by Red Mountain to the east and Sumas Mountain to the west, contains at its center around 1,600 homes. Many rely on wood stoves as a primary heat source. As a result, the valley’s large amount of wood smoke often combines with specific weather conditions to produce the county’s worst air quality. 

The Northwest Clean Air Agency (NWCAA) and the regional nonprofit Opportunity Council are partnering to change this. The Opportunity Council serves Whatcom, San Juan and Island counties, and operates programs in Skagit and Snohomish counties as well.

For nearly a decade, the Columbia Valley Air Quality Improvement Project has worked at reducing particulate pollution from wood smoke by replacing older, out-of-regulation wood stoves in residents’ homes with newer, more efficient ones — a home renovation worth thousands but available at no cost to residents. 

So far, about 140 wood stoves in the densely populated Columbia Valley Urban Growth Area have been replaced, said Julie O’Shaughnessy, NWCAA’s special projects manager. Add in the stoves Opportunity Council swapped out prior to the current program, and the number is closer to 165, said Kyle White, manager for the Council’s low-income home repair program.  

 “In general, the air is getting better up there,” he said. “But there’s still more work to do.”

Unhealthy: Washington Air Quality Advisory data details particulate presence from Azure Way in Peaceful Valley.

Through the haze

It was about 10 years ago that air quality complaints started rolling in with the smoke, O’Shaughnessy noted. 

The Columbia Valley Urban Growth Area is unique topographically and demographically, with more than 4,000 people packed densely into roughly two square miles covering the neighborhoods of Paradise, Peaceful Valley and Oregon Trail. With an estimated 600 wood stoves among these homes, wood smoke is sent skyward into air cradled by surrounding mountains. 

“It’s really in a bowl,” O’Shaughnessy said. Depending on weather conditions, the air inside this bowl can stagnate, leading to sometimes plainly-visible inversions of smoke and haze. When the NWCAA responded to complaints by placing a temporary air quality monitor in the area, the results were extremely concerning, she said.

In January 2012, with grant funding from the State Department of Ecology, the NWCAA installed a year-round air quality monitor and began brainstorming solutions. Because there’s no infrastructure for natural gas in the Columbia Valley (and that’s unlikely to change given associated costs), residents here have few options for heating. There’s electric heat, and also propane. But for most residents — many of them low-income — burning wood is simply the most cost-efficient way to stay warm.  

The NWCAA decided to partner with the Opportunity Council, which was already replacing older wood stoves through programs for seniors and low-income residents. The Council contracts with local companies for installation work and wood stove swap-outs. Each month, an Opportunity Council member meets with a NWCAA contact to discuss the program, outreach methods and budget, White said. 

Outreach includes mailing flyers, making door-to-door contact and using community events to inform residents of the program, though White said word-of-mouth has proved very important, too. 

“A neighbor’s getting a new wood stove or heat pump, and (soon after) you get their neighbor calling,” White said. 

The installation cost for each wood stove ranges from $3,500 to over $5,000, depending on the extent of replacement work. Sometimes just the stove is replaced, while other homes require hearths or pipes to also be replaced.  

The program initially had an income threshold for receiving a free stove. Those who didn’t qualify for that received a $2,000 rebate towards the overall cost, but O’Shaughnessy said not enough people could afford it, even with the rebate. So last year, the income requirement was dropped. 

Now, the requirements are straightforward: Anyone in the Columbia Valley Urban Growth Area who burns a cord of wood (a stack measuring four feet high and eight feet long) or more annually as a primary heat source may have their wood stove replaced. Their current stove must have been manufactured prior to the year 2000, or be otherwise non EPA-certified with regard to current pollution regulations.  

The new wood stoves all meet the federal 2020 standard of 2.0 grams or less per hour of particulate emissions. They burn cleaner than old stoves, O’Shaughnessy said, by utilizing a catalytic converter to improve air flow and heat retention. The exact size and model of each new stove is determined by the installation contractor, based upon house size and heating needs.

In addition to wood stoves, a homeowner also is eligible to receive a ductless heat pump at no cost, a value of over $5,000, White said. In the past, homeowners could receive either a stove or heat pump, but not both. 

Cozy — and safer: An efficient new wood stove in a Kendall home helps improve air quality indoors for residents and outdoors for all. The stove was installed via a project operated by the Northwest Clean Air Agency and the Opportunity Council in eastern Whatcom County’s Columbia Valley. (Matt Benoit photo © 2020)

Cutting household expenses

For the area’s many low-income residents, the program has been especially helpful. 

Kim VanBuskirk, 60, lives in a double-wide manufactured home in Peaceful Valley. She spent 23 years as a custodian for the Mount Baker School District before health problems forced her to quit working. Now on disability, VanBuskirk could not otherwise afford a new version of her home’s daily heat source. She pays around $200 for a cord of firewood, which is a major expense on her fixed income. 

Her previous stove — a large, barrel-shaped device — had become a major concern for the Environmental Protection Agency at one point. About 15 years ago, she received a letter threatening a $9,000 fine if she kept using it. Fearing a penalty she couldn’t afford, VanBuskirk switched to her home’s old electric furnace for a time, but its inefficiency raised her heating bill hundreds of dollars per month. 

Last summer, her old stove was finally replaced by a newer one, all in one business day. Contractors showed up around 7 a.m. and were finished by mid-afternoon. “It was awesome,” she said.

Her only complaint is that she can’t fit an entire Dutch oven on top of the new stove to cook meals, though it can still hold a pot or two. 

Changing habits

The program isn’t just about giving people new equipment and assuming it will solve the air pollution problem the valley faces, O’Shaughnessy said

Residents who take part are also given moisture meters to test the wood they burn and instructed on cleaner burning practices. The idea is to ensure residents understand how they can burn wood more cleanly and cheaply than before, and why they should. 

“If people have a new stove but they’re still burning wet wood, it’s not going to really help,” she said. 

Burnable wood should have a moisture content of 20 percent or less. Freshly-cut wood, which might seem ideal for burning immediately, can actually have a moisture reading of up to 45 percent. In lieu of a moisture meter, many people simply conduct a “clank” test on wood rounds: clanking two pieces together and listening for a crisp, dry knock. 

In addition to using the right wood, O’Shaughnessy said that residents should monitor the size of their fires and inspect rooftop smoke stacks throughout a burn. Smoke shouldn’t be visible beyond the first 20 minutes, except when new wood is added to an existing fire. 

“Behavior is just so important,” she said. “We’ve seen just one or two people who can really smoke the area out. That’s why we have to look at their equipment, their emissions, the educational component and their willingness to burn cleanly, as part of how we measure success. One person can really have a negative impact.”

In helping NWCAA with initial outreach, Moe said he’s seen the extent of careless burning behavior. In one home, residents were continuing to use their wood stove despite its broken glass door which was letting soot blacken the inside walls of the home. In many cases, he said, the swap-out program also helps the fire district’s mission of minimizing fire-safety issues. 

For those unwilling to comply with cleaning up their burning, O’Shaughnessy said, the agencies haven’t taken enforcement actions such as issuing fines. They’ve issued warnings, but the focus is on working hard to understand why someone is not complying before getting tough. 

“We’re still trying to bring people along,” she said. “We’re not looking at taking enforcement action if people don’t have all the tools they need in order to achieve cleaner burning. But if somebody has all the tools, and we’ve worked with them and they’re still burning horribly, then that’s an entirely different situation.”

Overall, the goal of the program — provided biennium-based state funding continues at the current level of about around $2 million — is to replace every single out-of-date wood stove in the urban growth area. The latest grants will sustain the replacements until June 2021.

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Matt Benoit is Bellingham-born and raised. He’s written for the Bellingham Herald, Tri-City Herald, Pacific Northwest Inlander, Discover Magazine and WhatcomTalk, among others. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media production from Washington State University.