Firewood assistance programs growing in Maine – CentralMaine.com – Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel

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Tight finances, physical disability and age may all hinder someone's ability to source their own firewood.
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You’ve heard of food banks, but what about wood banks?
Similar to food banks, which provide free food items to families in need, wood banks offer firewood to families without the financial means and physical ability to source their own wood.
Over the last decade, volunteers for the Rotary Club of Bethel have split and transported firewood for local residents in need. It’s one of a growing number of organizations in the state providing heating assistance to Mainers with wood-burning stoves.
Seeking to encourage communities to create more wood banks and connect existing programs across the state and country, the University of Maine recently received a $62,500 grant from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
Jessica Leahy, a professor of forestry, will lead the projects at the university and work with collaborators from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and The Alliance for Green Heat, a Maryland-based nonprofit organization.
Rotary Club members Scott Hynek, from left, Steve Wight and Richard Kenney split firewood at a recent “cutting and splitting” session. The organization provides firewood to local families in need. Submitted photo
The universities will research wood banks across the country and create educational resources to help start and sustain these programs, additionally hosting a national online summit for wood banks.

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“Cutting your own firewood sounds great, but you do need a chainsaw, you need safety equipment, you need a vehicle to transport it,” Leahy said. “There’s just a lot that goes into it. And so, not everybody can do that.”
Tight finances, physical disability and age may all hinder someone’s ability to source their own firewood, she said. For people facing the choice between food or heat in Maine’s frigid winters, wood banks can be a vital community resource.
“There’s widespread belief that people are really responsible when they ask for wood,” Leahy said. “Many of the groups in Maine do not use a vetting process to have people prove their income. They trust that people (are honest),” she said.
‘CUTTING AND SPLITTING’
It was a one-off donation from a local resident which kick-started the Bethel Rotary Club’s firewood program more than 10 years ago.
Now, firewood coordinator Scott Hynek said he realizes the logs were donated to encourage the club to do just that.

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“We didn’t understand that right away,” he said. “All we knew was that wood had appeared by magic, and I eventually figured out what had happened.”
Every year, Hynek and other members of the club organize a number of “cutting and splitting” sessions, sometimes with volunteers from Dirigo High School.
Local residents with extra logs or unwanted felled trees invite the club to come process the wood. The club then transports and stores the split wood until winter comes.
During the last several winters, the organization has regularly supplied four households with firewood, Hynek said.
Rotary club member Bruce Powell helps split and stack wood for the club’s wood bank earlier this year. The organization provides firewood to local families in need. Submitted photo
Requesting wood is simple and mostly anonymous, Hynek said. Residents are welcome to reach out to him personally with requests. The only other person who knows who the wood goes to is the driver, he said.
The club is always in search of donated wood and volunteers to help process it.

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Sometimes, gathering wood for the program is as simple as helping to clear away an unwanted, fallen tree.
“Not everybody in Maine knows how to work a chainsaw,” he said. “We just go clean up the yard, take away the tree. Everybody’s happy.”
In their best year, the organization split 12 cords of wood. This year will likely be smaller, but they’re not finished yet. Their next cutting and splitting session is planned for this weekend.
“It is important because most people that are heating with wood aren’t people who have a lot of extra money around anyway,” Hynek said. “It’s not as easy as letting your thermostat and checkbook do it with oil.”
And like many other things these days, he said prices for purchasing firewood are rising.
“This is (just) a piece (of) the sort of things that Rotary Clubs do everywhere,” Hynek said. “It is a service before self kind of operation.”

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BUILDING COMMUNITY
Leahy first began researching wood banks in 2014 with Sabrina Vivian, then an undergraduate student. The pair wrote a guide to assist communities with starting and running their own wood banks.
While researching the guide, they organized a summit to bring together wood banks across Maine and learn about their programs. Leahy said that the attendees’ operations ranged in size from a woman who paid to keep the woodshed at the end of her driveway stocked to large groups with their own processing equipment.
“Wood banks are inherently a local phenomenon,” Leahy said. “You don’t want to move firewood very far.”
There are few wood banks which advertise themselves as such. Many are run informally and are known only to those living in the community.
Back when Vivian and Leahy were researching wood banks in 2015, they had only identified a handful in Maine. Since then, others have been created.

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Besides the one in Bethel, there are also known wood banks located in Cumberland, Orland, Boothbay Harbor, Penobscot and across Waldo County.
The most successful programs are the ones which move slowly in developing their process and identifying a good location, Leahy said. She recommends those interested in starting wood banks reach out to other successful organizations in the state and listen to community members about what will work best.
A demand analysis conducted by Vivian and Leahy in 2015 found that residents near Farmington, Rangeley, Buckfield, Canton, Stoneham and Brownfield might find wood banks to be particularly beneficial. The analysis considered income levels and the number of homes heated by wood using census data.
This year, the Alliance for Green Heat will distribute grants to existing wood banks ranging between $5,000-15,000. But next year, the program will grow to help fund new and newly forming wood banks.
And as helpful as wood banks can be for those in need, it’s also an excellent way to build community, Leahy and Hynek agreed.
“It’s nobody’s idea of a fun thing to do, cutting and splitting wood,” Hynek said. “But if you’re doing with a bunch of people that you know and are familiar with, it can be a lot of fun. The kids (high school students) catch on to that. That’s a wonderful thing for them to know.”
“I just think the social capital that people get from working together to help their neighbors — it’s great to get people their firewood and build community at the same time, and wood banks provide that,” Leahy said.
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