Autumn sweat brings winter warmth
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Terri Thissen doesn’t need to go to the gym these days – she’s burning plenty of calories cutting, splitting and stacking firewood.
While October’s a pretty quiet time for most of the valley, the folks who cut, haul and sell firewood are busily stacking firewood for the winter. The people in the business sell some of the wood to locals too busy to gather their own, but much of their labor is absorbed by hotels, condo complexes and the like, places that usually cater to either second-home owners or guests.
For Thissen, the wood business – Stumpy’s – is a labor of love. Spending her summers as The Plant Lady in Gypsum, Thissen took over the business after the death of her son, Tucker, earlier this year.
So far, the business is going well, she said. There was a client list, and she’s running the splitter, and hired a man to run the chainsaw. Logs come from a local company logging beetle-killed trees.
At the level Stumpy’s operates, more than two people on the payroll would be too much, so Thissen and her helper are using an old pickup and an SUV with a trailer to deliver wood from Aspen to Vail.
Dave Lambert operates at a higher level than “Mama Stumpy.” Lambert and Dave Coe run Hollywood Services, an Avon-based company that does a little bit of everything, from landscaping to irrigation to snow removal and more. In the fall, Lambert keeps his people busy laying in roughly enough firewood to pit-roast a dinosaur.
Hollywood’s lot near Dotsero has truckloads of large timbers – beetle-killed trees from Beaver Creek. There’s still plenty of hand labor, but a big machine cuts most of the wood down to size. The machine, which could be used as a prop in a horror movie, has a conveyor belt, an arm-mounted chainsaw, and a star-shaped splitter that can crack a log up to perhaps 2 feet in diameter into several fireplace-sized sticks with one solid push from a hydraulic ram.
Lambert said the machine was expensive, but is a real labor-saver. On a good day, the machine and a crew can cut and split between eight and 10 cords of firewood, not quite 1,300 cubic feet of fuel.
After the cutting and stacking comes the hauling, something that keeps local wood companies busy only about four months out of the year. Still, Lambert said, it’s a “significant” part of his company’s business. In fact, he said, it’s one of the few parts of his business that’s growing.
But while wood is a renewable resource, demand is slipping every year.
“Even the older homes are switching to gas,” Lambert said. “And only the older lodges and condos still have wood fireplaces. Over time, they’re going to be replaced.”
Lambert guessed there might be commercial demand for another 15 years or so before gas-burning mostly replaces wood fires.
But Pete Dillon, owner of a4s, an Eagle-Vail-based service business that also creates decorative fireplace doors, thinks there will always be people willing to buy and burn wood.
“A lot of people like wood – the smell and feel of a real fire,” Dillon said. But, he acknowledged, maintenance can be tricky, grubby work, so he’s seeing resort homes sticking with wood-burners while year-round residents are switching over to gas when they remodel. Although, he added, he knows quite a few people who have kept one wood-burner in their homes even when switching over to gas.
Dillon, whose company counts the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch among its clients, said it can be tricky to find wood sometimes, so he often scouts new building lots and contacts the people cutting those trees.
While Dillon’s been in the wood business for several years, he said it’s not a huge part of his business. But it is a way to keep his employees busy during an otherwise slow time, and does help the bottom line.
Still, Dillon sometimes wonders about getting out of the delivery business and making his lot in Eagle-Vail a pickup-only operation.
Gary Lebo of Alpenglow Property Management understands that thinking.
“It’s really hard work,” Lebo said. “And sometimes condo complexes make it even harder – there are places where you can’t use the elevators, so you’ve got to use the stairs.”