"If you haven't had your grandpappy or pappy teach you, you'll have to learn on your own and it isn't easy. You get a good sweat up," says John Coleman, a ranger in the Lee Ranger District. "It's a skill to fell a tree, buck it into lengths, carry it, stumbling -- it may weigh up to 40 pounds -- perhaps 100 yards through brush, unload it, and then split and stack it at home."
Despite that back-wrenching labor, and in spite of the rise in gas prices, Washingtonians are driving 1 1/2 hours to the nearest national forest to chop wood for home use. So far this year, the U.S. Forest Service has issued 1,586 personal-use permits at $5 each to cut cords of dead and down wood in the 189,000-acre Lee Ranger District, the northernmost section of the George Washington National Forest, 75 miles south of the District in Virginia and West Virginia.
The fee is new this year; the permit allows the holder up to four cords a year. A cord, measuring 4-by-4-by-8 feet and containing 128 cubic feet, equals two loads of a regular-sized pickup truck with an eight-foot bed or four loads of a mini-sized truck.
Fuel-wood permits are for sale at the George Washington National Forest district ranger offices in Staunton, Bridgewater, Hot Springs, Edinburg, Buena Vista and Covington.
Coleman suggests woodcutters wear earplugs, safety glasses, hard-toed boots, a hard hat and chain saw chaps made of cut-resistant material.
Chain saws must have a muffler or spark arrester to prevent fires. Other recommended tools include an ax, splitting maul, shovel, fire extinguisher and a first-aid kit. The penalty for illegally cutting or damaging wood or removing timber is six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine.
"We will monitor firewood collection and prosecute violators to the fullest extent of the law," says forest spokesman W. Terry Smith.
Those who want others to cut the wood and deliver it to their homes take note: Be at home when the wood is delivered and measure it before it's taken off the truck and before you pay for it.
Wood for fuel can only be sold by the cord or fraction of a cord, not as a face cord, tier, rack, rick, pile or truckload. The pieces of wood should be placed in a line or row, with individual pieces touching and parallel to each other, and stacked in a compact manner.
"People have delivered a wheelbarrow-sized amount, calling it a cord, and it surely wasn't. It was actually one-tenth of a cord," says Alan Rogers, program manager, Office of Weights and Measures, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services of Virginia.
If you suspect you are receiving a different quantity or type of wood than you paid for, do not burn any of it. Instead, immediately call your local office of consumer regulatory affairs. It will send a state weights and measures inspector to examine and measure a stacked pile and will prosecute if there is a violation.
In the District, violators face a $100-$500 fine for short measuring and a $50-$500 fine for selling out of season (April-September).
"In my eight years here we've prosecuted someone every year for selling short-measured firewood," says Louis Straub, program manager of the weights and measures section of the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The maximum fine in Maryland is $500 and/or three months in jail and restitution to the homeowner. A court found three people guilty last year and one so far this year.
Virginia prosecutes an average of four people a year. There have been nine such complaints so far this year.
District, Virginia and Maryland laws state a receipt must accompany all firewood deliveries, which must include: the vendor's and purchaser's names and addresses; date of delivery; the quantity of the delivery, the quantity upon which the price is based, and the price of the amount delivered. Maryland also suggests asking for the signature of the person determining the quantity delivered, the license number -- or other identification number -- of the delivery vehicle, and the identity of wood species.
In Maryland, if two or more species are present, the delivery ticket must indicate to within 5 percent accuracy the percentages of each group. Virginia law requires accuracy to within 10 percent.
Most wood species will not burn if freshly cut, so the wood you purchase should be reasonably dry or seasoned. Seasoned wood is lighter and darker than green or wet wood, and it has cracks or drying marks on the ends and its bark usually is sloughing off.
Softwoods -- pine, cedar, spruce and fir -- are easy to ignite, but they burn rapidly with a hot flame. For a longer-lasting fire, add the heavier hardwoods, such as ash, dogwood, beech, maple, hickory and oaks. Seasoned wood has almost twice the heating value of green wood, which emits large amounts of creosote, leading to possible maintenance problems. By mixing softwoods and hardwoods you can achieve an easily ignited and long-lasting fire. A pleasant aroma comes from the woods of fruit trees, such as apple and cherry, and from nut trees, such as beech, hickory and pecan.
Generally speaking, a cord of air-dry, dense hardwood weighs approximately two tons and provides as much heat as one ton of coal, or 150 to 175 gallons of Number 2 fuel oil, or 24,000 cubic feet of natural gas.
Prices range from $100 to $150 a cord. Green wood usually is 25 percent less expensive than seasoned wood, and hardwoods cost more than softwoods. You will pay less outside the District. Consumer Affairs Offices The District: 202-727-7900.
Virginia: Alexandria, 703-838-4350; Arlington, 703-358-3260; Fairfax County, 703-359-9161.
Maryland: Howard County, 301-313-7220; Montgomery County, 301-217-7373; Prince George's County, 301-925-5100; Gaithersburg, 301-258-6315.