Can Fallen Trees Be Used For Firewood?


What comes up must come down, including trees. You have probably found a fallen tree or two on your property after a heavy summer storm or harsh winter. Such is not uncommon for woodlot owners or homeowners with landscape trees. You may have wondered how to get rid of it or utilize it to prevent it from going to waste. Good news: Fallen trees can work great as firewood with a few considerations:

  • The tree should be a well-burning species.
  • The tree cannot be too rotten.
  • The tree cannot be under any tension from having fallen.

However, if you own forest land, for your convenience and safety as well as the health of the forest, it is best that trees be properly harvested on the stump instead of waiting until they fall. If you do plan on using fallen trees for firewood, here are a few tips.

Fallen trees can be used as firewood.

The Species of the Fallen Tree Is Important

When it comes to firewood, not all species are created equal. There is a big difference between species in the total amount of heat produced when burned, how long they burn, and how easily they split. You can find more in-depth information here, but in general, hardwoods like oak, hickory, and maple are going to be better suited for firewood than softwood like pine, spruce, and hemlock. That is not to say you can’t burn these species, of course, but they simply won’t provide the same heat as other trees.

A Fallen Tree Can Be Too Rotten to Burn

Trees and fungus go hand in hand. All trees carry different varieties of fungi. Some fungi are beneficial while others eat away and decompose the tree. This process often begins while the tree is alive and thriving, and it is often because of this decomposition that the tree falls down as its structure becomes compromised. Rotten trees can be burned, but because the wood has begun to breakdown, it will not produce the same heat as sound wood, and it may produce more smoke and creosote. Additionally, if a piece of wood is too infested with a fungus, burning it may cause respiratory distress for those with sensitivities. A good test to see if a tree is too rotten is simply to apply pressure to the wood. If the wood feels soft to the touch, then it is best to leave the piece in the woods. It is most common for rot to begin in the center of the log, so if the center is soft, but there is plenty of sound wood around it, the log is still good to go.

This tree is too rotten to burn

Be Sure the Tree Is Not Under Any Tension

The manner in which a tree falls is unpredictable. In some cases, the tree may break clean and fall to the ground, other times, it may bend over or remain partially attached to the stump, creating tension in the stem. This can be an extremely hazardous situation, as cutting the tree with a chainsaw can cause a sudden release of tension and produce catastrophic, even deadly, results. If you are inexperienced with felling trees, it is best to leave such trees on the ground or hire a professional to take care of it. Any time a chainsaw touches a tree, it is a dangerous situation that should not be taken lightly, but a fallen tree under tension can make it many times more hazardous. If you do decide to cut such trees, plan carefully and be sure to wear all your safety gear.

Using Fallen Trees For Firewood Is Not Ideal

In certain online groups and communities, there is a certain pride in trying to heat one’s home entirely with firewood from fallen trees. The idea is that it is an eco-friendly, carbon-neutral way to heat a house. The efforts are admirable, but the truth is that waiting until a tree is on the ground to harvest it can lead to more waste and worse outcomes than if it were cut off the stump.

Breakage Can Lead to Waste.

Trees will occasionally break half way up the stem, leaving a considerable amount of wood on the stump. One can try to cut the rest of the stem down, but without the weight from the crown to bring them down cleanly, broken stems can be difficult and even dangerous to cut. It is far easier to utilize the entire tree when it is cut down while it is still standing.

Older Trees Slow The Growth of Younger Trees

While trees don’t stop growing, their growth does slow dramatically in old age. A stagnant tree in the forest isn’t just unproductive, it shades out younger trees and prevents them from growing to the full extent they otherwise could. By waiting until a tree is fallen before you harvest its firewood, you let it suppress neighboring trees longer then it should, costing younger trees the opportunity to grow and produce more wood. The average acre of forest in the US produces about .6 cords of wood per year, but a younger forest can produce much more.

Harvesting Only Fallen Trees Sacrifices Management Opportunities.

As stated earlier, not all tree species are equal. This is true not only in the context of firewood, but in all domains, including lumber and even wildlife value. When trees are selected for harvest, landowners can manage for the objectives they wish to see. If they want to manage their land to produce their own firewood, for example, they can optimize their forest to produce the best firewood by creating room for valuable growth and removing trees that are of poor quality or over-mature. Letting trees fall to the ground limits your ability to make good silvicultural choices on your property and manage for the forest you want to see.

Fallen Trees Can Be Used As Firewood, But Be Aware

Maybe you are asking this question because a tree fell on your lawn, and so forest management is not an issue, or maybe you do actively manage a woodlot you own, but even a well-managed forest will have natural mortality here and there. If that’s the case, don’t worry, fallen trees absolutely can be burned for firewood, just be aware of previous warnings. Additionally, if you are wondering about trees that are not on your property, always ask landowner permission before harvesting any trees, dead or alive. Now get out there and start cutting!

Zachary Lowry

A forester from northern Maine, I spent my early career working for large timberland owners, managing forest land and investments in the form of managing timber harvest operations as well as planning and managing precommercial thinning, planting, and herbicide application programs. These days I work on my own land and help timberland owners large and small manage theirs.

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