Getting burned on firewood sales Buyer beware: Unscrupulous operators are giving some customers less wood than they ordered.

November 18, 1996|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

With temperatures dropping and snow shovels poised, legions of wood-laden trucks are descending on neighborhoods from Timonium to Annapolis to peddle cozy winter evenings by the fire.

Sad to say, many folks will come up a few fires short.

Inspectors at the state Department of Agriculture already are fielding calls from people who suspect that they were cheated by their firewood dealer.

For many, buying firewood is one of those risky purchases, often made on romantic impulse. The desire to be hypnotized by lapping flames and listen to that comforting crackle sometimes overcomes common sense. You know you should be buying aged hardwoods.

But if you barely know oak from pine and have no clue what a cord of wood is, it's easy to hope for the best and trust that the guy with the pickup truck out front isn't ripping you off.

Unethical dealers are often difficult to track.

"People suspect they didn't get the right amount, then realize the dealer's phone number has been disconnected," said Louis Straub, chief of the department's weights and measures section. "Some of them kind of vanish. They don't like to return our calls."

This time of year, hundreds of dealers are peddling wood, most of it cut locally. A license from the state Department of Natural Resources can be had for $10, but state officials suspect that many unlicensed dealers are out there.

"I would be very skeptical of anybody selling firewood door-to-door," said Straub.

If you wonder how seriously he takes this problem, consider the case he and his inspectors built last winter against James Denton Fairburn.

A string of Fairburn's customers in Harford County contacted the state over several months, complaining that Fairburn had shorted them on their wood purchases -- in some cases by as much as 50 percent.

"I've been burning wood for almost 20 years, so when I saw what he left, I knew it wasn't two cords," said David May, an electrical engineer from Bel Air, who bought wood from Fairburn. In fact, it was just under one cord.

Fairburn didn't return his calls, so May contacted state investigators, who did what any good narcotics officers might do -- they set up an undercover buy. On Feb. 23, when Fairburn arrived at a home in Forest Hill and delivered a load of wood far short of the order, a video camera behind a garage window was rolling and still cameras clicked off shots of the transaction.

Fairburn, who had been nabbed for similar dealings the year before, netted himself a month in jail and was banned from selling firewood in Maryland. So far this year, six dealers have been prosecuted.

The solution for wary firewood buyers is simple, Straub said. All you really have to know is how much wood is in a "cord."

That appears to cause the greatest confusion among buyers.

"Many people don't know -- they're vulnerable," said Melvin Fair, who delivers a cord at a time from his 15-year-old firewood business in Reisterstown. "I'll get someone who orders two cords, and they pay me the full price on the first delivery. I have to tell them, 'You've got another load coming.' They say, 'Oh, really?' That happens a lot."

Fair, a fit, 71-year-old retiree, says he usually stacks the wood himself when he delivers a load so his customers can see what they're getting. No one has ever filed a complaint against him, state inspectors say.

"I just hate to see people get ripped off," Fair said. "I think a lot of these guys get into it -- they have a truck and a chain saw -- [and] I don't think they know themselves what a cord of wood is."

For the record, a cord of firewood measures 4 feet high, 4 feet deep and 8 feet long when stacked compactly. That's 128 cubic feet of wood. And it is far more wood than will fit in the bed of a standard pickup truck.

If sellers offer wood to you by the "face cord," "rack," "pile," or even by the truckload, be suspicious. There are no legal definitions for how much wood that should amount to, so insist on buying by the cord or fraction of a cord, state inspectors say.

And since it is virtually impossible to eyeball a pyramid of unstacked wood and determine how much is there, insist that the seller stack it (although he may charge extra) and measure the pile yourself before he leaves. A cord of wood typically costs between $100 and $160.

If you're tempted to buy wood by the stick or in a package of several logs from your neighborhood market, understand that you may be paying at a rate equivalent to $300 to $700 a cord.

And don't hold out too much hope if you latch on to a good, reliable dealer.

"They come and go," said Jack Perdue, of the state forest service. "They might be in business this year, but next year you won't see them anymore."

Wood buying tips

Always purchase by the cord or fraction of a cord, the only legal measurement for firewood. A cord measures 4 feet high, 4 feet deep and 8 feet long.

Ask the seller to stack and measure the wood.

To determine if wood is aged, which is desirable, look for a grayish color and cracks at the ends.

Ask the dealer for a delivery ticket, which is required by the state. It should show the dealer's name, address and phone number, the amount of wood delivered and how much was paid. Also note the truck's license plate number.

The Department of Natural Resources forestry division (974-3776) can tell you if your firewood dealer is licensed and provide his address and phone number.

To file a complaint, contact the Department of Agriculture, weights and measures division, 841-5790.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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