HOUSEHOLD energy bills are supposed to be capped, though you wouldn’t think so with the latest projections hitting £6,000 a year and rising by 2023. One result (apart from the risk of mass panic) is firewood sales surging, with homeowners intending to open up their fireplaces instead of using the gas-fired central heating. 

Industry pundits cite a 20 to 25 per cent overall increase in sales of firewood, despite a 43 per cent increase in price over the last 12 months. According to data from the Stove Industry Alliance, use of a wood burner instead of central heating could save homeowners at least £130 this coming winter. 

Several key firewood suppliers have told the national press just how busy they were during late summer. Forestry Firewood, based in Newport, Gwent, South Wales said its deliveries were already fully booked in late August for the following four weeks. Logs for Sale, a nationwide supplier of firewood, which sources most of its wood product from Latvia, said sales projections for the three months on from late August were 60 per cent higher than at the same time in 2021. Demand is so high, some suppliers are already expressing concern there will not be enough wood to burn.

However, some scientists say this rapid move to wood should come with a health warning – and literally so. This, they say, is because burning wood in open hearths and wood-burning stoves generates a highly dangerous form of air pollution called particulate matter; minute particles of soot that can become deeply buried in the lungs to cause serious illness, including cancer. 

Alistair Lewis, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of York, told The i newspaper: “If you are concerned about health and wellbeing, you really do yourself no favours at all by lighting a fire inside your house.” 

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The domestic use of wood burners and other solid-fuel stoves is already under the spotlight following government modelling published in 2020, which suggested these stoves are a leading cause of particulate air pollution. 

On the subject of health and safety, if you are going to open up your fireplace then get a carpenter to lay black poplar wooden flooring in front of it, because it won’t catch fire if red hot cinders spit from the fireplace. The Victorians swore by the wood from this native tree. 

A switch to wood burning caused by escalating cost of gas and heating oil is nothing new in modern Europe. It happened in Greece during the recession of 2009, when Greek families went into the woods and even public parks to cut down trees for fuel. The slopes of Mount Olympus were stripped of trees, including ancient olive trees. 

Not even the famous ‘Plato’s Olive Tree’ in Athens was spared (so-called because it was said to be a remnant of the grove within which Plato’s academy was situated). That would have made it approximately 2,400 years old. The mass burning of wood at that time caused horrendous air pollution and consequent health problems for the Greek population.

You might think that couldn’t happen here, but don’t bet on it. Lead is stolen from church roofs and copper wire from railway junction boxes. What about the spate of illegal tree felling in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, last year, when dozens of street and other amenity trees were felled for the fun of it? If energy costs spiral as far out of control as predicted, then all bets are off.