Missing pollution in the crisp, clean air

by Lise Waring

This cold-weather week, I've seen two pickup trucks parked in town, each stacked high with firewood. This may be a sure sign of the coming of winter in rural towns across the nation, but it's become an uncommon sight in downtown Telluride these days.

When I moved to Telluride in the 1980s, almost every house was heated by wood. A quality woodstove is a worthy heat source because it can bring a room from freezing to blow-your-socks-off hot in a matter of minutes. I remember many a dinner with housemates, sitting around the table in only our long underwear, with faces flushed and the doors and windows wide open while a snowstorm raged outside. If we'd had a thermostat, I'm sure it would have hovered near 90 degrees. Of course, we could have damped the stove to reduce the flame. But we didn't, at least not until we went to bed, knowing we wouldn't stoke the fire again until morning. It sounds profligate, but cut us some slack: We were 20-something-year-old ski bums, living in squalid shacks; heat was our only real indulgence.

They say that all good things must end, and so it was for most all the wood stoves in Telluride. In the late 1980s, the EPA determined that the quantity of airborne particulates in close to 10,000-feet-high Telluride was higher than in downtown Denver. How could it be that a small mountain town sported dirtier air than an urban center? Geography and meteorology were to blame.

In Telluride's tight box canyon, temperature inversions would often set in and stay, trapping chimney smoke in the valley like a lid on a pot. So the town council tightened woodstove regulations, and then in 1996, it banned woodstoves altogether in any newly constructed house and mandated their removal upon the sale of any existing structure. After the real estate boom of the late 1990s and the churning home sales of the early 2000s, few stoves remained.

Today, I know of only a handful of houses within Telluride town limits that still burn wood.  The good news is that the regulations on stoves worked. A greasy gray cloud no longer blankets the town in winter, and Telluride's air quality is far better than it was 20 years ago.

The bad news is that there's no substitute for the heat of a woodstove. When I bought my house (and sadly removed the woodstove), I installed a free-standing gas stove, which poses as a wannabe woodstove in the living room. I'm warm enough, but it's not the same.

In the fall, I miss excursions into the woods with a chainsaw and the steady rhythm of splitting wood in the driveway. Stacking a good woodpile is perhaps the most gratifying weekend activity of all time, one that certainly confirms the old adage that "a woodstove warms you twice."

Getting ready for the cold -- scurrying about like a squirrel tucking away nuts -- is a harbinger of winter that can't be fulfilled by paying the gas bill. During the coldest and darkest days in December, I long for that familiar crackling heat from a woodstove, although then I pause and remind myself to savor Telluride's clean mountain air. I guess you can't have everything.

Lise Waring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Telluride, Colorado, where she works for the town's tourism board.

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