Yukon firewood shortage hits home for Mount Lorne senior

·4 min read
A cord of firewood can go for $500 in Whitehorse these days. That's if there's any to be had.  (Heather Barrett/CBC - image credit)
A cord of firewood can go for $500 in Whitehorse these days. That's if there's any to be had. (Heather Barrett/CBC - image credit)

A firewood shortage in the Yukon had a senior worried about heating his home in the middle of a cold snap, while those in the forestry sector say this was an outcome they warned the government about back in the summer.

Werner Rhein heats his log cabin in Mount Lorne with a wood gasification boiler. He said it's an efficient system but despite his efforts to ration fuel, he was quickly running out. When Rhein contacted CBC News last Tuesday, he only had enough firewood to last about another week.

"I don't call that living …[I] live from my hand into my mouth day by day," Rhein said about not knowing how he'd be able to keep his home warm.

"Now we have an emergency. It's already here. And I can't shut down my mouth. I have to open up."

Rhein said his supplier had a big backlog to fill. He looked at buying a cord of wood from a yard in Carcross but found that the price was up to $500 per cord. Rhein typically burns through 10 cords per year.

"I'm 78 years old. I used to go and cut my own firewood. But my body doesn't agree with that anymore," he said.

Rhein blamed the government for the wood shortage, saying he sounded the alarm about the possibility of it as early as the summer.

Licence delays at fault

The Yukon Wood Products Association was warning the government about the impending shortage as well.

"It's the low income folks that are going to suffer the most here. It's the elderly that can't get out and physically cut their own firewood anymore that are going to suffer," said Myles Thorp, executive director.

"And we [made] that point back in June. And then here we are in January 2022 and people are facing this problem."

In 2016, the Yukon Government adopted a biomass strategy to reduce the territory's reliance on fossil fuels. By fostering an energy sector centred on firewood, the plan posited that greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced along with heating costs. However, the strategy notes that ensuring a secure supply of fuel is "essential" to developing such an industry.

Thorp traces the current firewood shortage back to March when loggers had their permits expire. He said new permits were not issued in time for summer, blaming delays in an already slow regulatory process.

"So then it took the entire summer to get those next set of licences in place, right through to the end of November. You could have been building inventory in terms of having logs stacked and ready to go," Thorp said.

"So, yeah. We're out of wood. We're out of wood because the licensing should have been all done in the summer."

Cold weather wreaks havoc

John Streicker, minister of energy, mines and resources, said the problem was not permitting or supply. He said the Yukon consumes up to 7,000 cords of wood each winter and permits were issued to supply more than 5,000 of them.

"The Forest Resources Branch worked over the summer, so we got a few quick permits in place and then we got Quill Creek [Timber Harvest Plan], which is about 15 years' worth of supply in place. That happened in the fall," Streicker told Yukon Morning.

Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada
Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada

Instead, Streicker said the challenge was getting that lumber to customers as the extreme cold led to suppliers' equipment breaking down.

"We've got a lot of snow that made access tough for folks. And then the cold hit and hoses were bursting. And you know how tough it is to keep equipment running in the cold," he said.

'There are still good people in the Yukon'

For Rhein, that action came far too late.

"You can't release permits in the middle of the winter to wood cutters. You need access roads to get into the forest to be able to cut. And you can't build roads when the ground is frozen," he said.

Thorp doesn't dispute that the cold is a challenge. But had the permits been approved earlier, there would have been more inventory and the current wood shortage would not be as acute, he said.

"And you're doing just-in-time delivery. The problem that comes into that, without having 1,000 cords ahead, is that now every cord you put on a truck has a place to go," Thorp said.

"[With] this cold weather snap we have, that production line snaps because you don't have anybody logging. They can't log in the cold weather."

By the end of this month, the firewood supply should improve, Thorp said. By the end of March, he said inventory should accumulate to the point where it will cover next winter as well.

Until then, Rhein has been relying on the kindness of others. He said listeners of Yukon Morning heard about his situation and offered him some of their firewood. He was expecting a cord over the weekend.

"There are still good people in the Yukon," he wrote in an email.

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