25 August 2023

If wood heater smoke is such a burning issue, government can't afford to take decades to stop it

| Ian Bushnell
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burning logs

The days of wood heaters in Canberra homes are numbered, but it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Photo: File.

The best heating system we ever had was a wood heater in a Stirling home with good insulation in the early 2000s.

It wasn’t just the charm or nostalgic attachment that Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti say is the main attraction of fire, although the ambience is wonderful.

The quality of the heat, radiating throughout the property and into its thermal mass, meant the home remained snug long after the fire was tamped down and into the wee hours.

It was far more efficient than gas and electricity, and even then, cheaper, although the advent of infrared panels may offer an alternative that provides that thermal warmth.

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One can understand why, in the era of bill shock, some Canberrans have opted to install wood heaters. While there is no figure for how many exist in the Territory, the number has grown with a survey suggesting 11 per cent of Canberrans have them.

But the end is almost nigh, with the ACT Government edging ever so carefully towards banning them in urban areas in its announced move to a phase-out by 2045, a year plucked from the gas phase-out policy.

It’s long enough away for some not to worry, but the reality is legislative action could and should occur much sooner if the government believes its own advice that there is no safe level of wood smoke and that winter air quality and the health of Canberrans are being compromised.

Aficionados and manufacturers insist that the real problem is with the wood and other combustibles that people use in their heaters.

That’s softwood, green wood, moist wood, not the recommended cured hardwood eucalypt, which should burn cleanly in a modern heater and emit just carbon dioxide, ash residue and water vapour.

But look out over the Tuggeranong Valley on winter’s morning with a classic weather inversion and the pall of smoke hanging over the suburbs is palpable.

According to Commissioner for the Environment Dr Sophie Lewis’s investigation, that smoke contains a mixture of pollutants, including particulate matter, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and volatile organic gases, which are detrimental to human health.

The fine particulate matter is most worrying and is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, strokes, cancer, dementia, premature births, and complex developmental conditions such as autism, attention deficit and reduced IQ in children.

Some households with neighbouring wood heaters suffer through every winter as smoke shrouds and infiltrates their properties and their complaints fall on deaf ears.

There are side issues, such as the impact on the environment of wood collection, such as the loss of habitat for wildlife and carbon emissions, but it is the health impacts that are demanding government action.

Smoke from woodfire heaters has been found to linger for longer in the Tuggeranong valley. Photo: Clean Air Canberra.

Smoke from wood fire heaters over the Tuggeranong Valley. Photo: Clean Air Canberra.

Yet, despite it being a problem long known, governments have tried to avoid being singed by such a polarising issue, relying on incentive programs to help people switch, but the success rate is persistently low.

This government is no different, announcing a phase-out but talking about the need for more consultation, the need to do the policy work and more analysis before acting on the recommendations from the commissioner that it has agreed to.

With an election a little over a year away, a brawl with wood heater owners, suppliers and firewood merchants is not welcomed, particularly if the issues get conflated with climate and libertarian conspiracy theories.

The easiest first step is to extend the current ban in some areas to any new suburbs and then to any new installations elsewhere.

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But eventually, the government will have to bite the bullet and get rid of the things if it is serious about improving winter air quality and protecting people’s health, something we all pay for eventually.

While the end date is 2045, almost a generation away, taking that long would be a dereliction of duty.

No matter who wins the election, the issue should be dealt with in the next term of government.

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I wish this Tin Pot Regime would Stop taking away Choice, what will happen when the electricity grid is overloaded, or we have a Winter Storm and it knocks out the Power Grid, Do we Just Freeze??, at lease with Wood it won’t go out, or if you have small Petrol Generator at least you can power up the Gas Heater. time to Ponder.

Listen, I don’t want to meddle in my near and far neighbours lives just as I’m sure they wouldn’t to me. But wood smoke doesn’t stick around in the property that produces it – does it. I want to breathe clean air at night with open windows. I want to dry my washing on the line. I don’t want my garage smoked up. Listening?

It does seem that the ACT’s Governing group are clearly on some ideological fantasy ride usually limited to the rich and famous (or overpaid), as they are the only ones that can afford it.
What about promoting other forms of heating that are more environmental friendly & sustainable like Wood Pellet Heaters, burn clean, provide the sort of soaking warmth you don’t get from Electric Heating options..
Other States & New Zealand offer subsidies to Pensioners, & actively promote them as a viable alternative. Widely used in the US & World wide!
The wood pellets I burn are pressed in Cooma, sawdust from the Bomballa Sawmill & Pine plantation Timber!

Outdoor fire pits !!! Anti social and harmful really , do you want to ban my pizza oven also? Please just go away

GrumpyGrandpa6:47 pm 28 Aug 23

The ACT Government has announced no new ICE cars after 2035, no gas cooking or heating and now that wood fires are to be phased-out.

(It’s also been suggested although not confirmed that after the phased-out date, the Government would require the removal of any remaining wood fires, before allowing properties to be sold).

Logically, you could expect that the gas or wood fired BBQ would also be at risk and people with caravans would need to stock up on battery systems to power their stoves, heating and lighting, when not connected to the mains, in a caravan park.

I don’t always agree with Mr Bushnell, but he’s probably right when he says that if wood-fired pollution is as bad as suggested, then the ACT Government should ban them now!

Maybe we’ll get some clarification about these matters after the 2024 election?

Really, the ACT Government should not wait until after the election to ‘clarify” contentious policy approaches.

GrumpyGrandpa1:59 pm 29 Aug 23

Sorry Michael C, that was my attempt at sarcasm.

I grew up in the country with a wood fired cooking and heating. Our hot water was heated via pipes running through the stove.

We don’t have any wood fires at our house, but I love them.

I accept however that when you burn wood, particularly if it’s not well seasoned, there’s going to be smoke and with that particulates released into the air and that could be a problem in an urban environment.

Whilst still somewhat supportive of those with wood fires, if there is clear medical evidence telling the Government that burning wood in a suburban environment is hazardous, why are they waiting until 2045 to phase it out? I’m calling BS on that. 2045 might be the final date. Changes will start happening before that.

Politicians rarely reveal their full intentions leading up to an election. We’ll hear more after October 2024.

Anyway, I said enough. I think politicians need to be straight with us.

I remember when wood heaters were the way to heat in Winter because wood was a renewable source, and when single use plastic shopping bags were great because trees were not cut down to make paper bags, and gas space and water heaters were better and more efficient and cleaner than electric one.

Canberra is a cold place and a wood fire is one of things that makes living here better. I don’t know anyone with an issue, but If it was me and I had asthma, I’d move to a different spot rather than ruining it for everyone else.

Wood smoke shortens everyone’s lives, not just asthmatics’.

Daniel O'CONNELL2:36 pm 28 Aug 23

Agree so much with this article. Smoke from wood fires in the suburbs is unpleasant and a definite hazard. Btw surprised the Commissioner for the Environment states carbon dioxide is a health hazard. I must have missed that class at school

Stop meddling into everything in everyone’s life, Canberra is becoming the most regulated place to live.

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