It's hard to beat the warm glow and crackle of a wood fire. Chopping the wood, setting the kindling and stoking the embers become a processes of a winter-time ritual in the Canberra houses that still rely on one of civilisation's oldest sources of warmth.
A fire has a personality and presence in a way that a hot-air duct or electric column does not. After last year's long winter, disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, it comes as no surprise there has been a spike in the number of new wood-burning stoves and heaters being installed in homes across the ACT.
But while a fire keeps a home warm and cosy, its pollution can have a far-reaching impact on the city.
For years, the ACT government has offered rebates to encourage people to decommission or remove wood heaters, and further incentives to replace them with electric heaters. But rebates have been no match for people's enduring love affair with having a real fire at home.
The policy, however, has done wonders to reduce the thick smoke haze that can blanket Canberra on its coldest days, when fires across the city's older suburbs are stoked up. Smoke from wood fires is generally the ACT's largest source of air pollution, and is associated with asthma, chronic lung disease and heart problems. Some pollutants are carcinogenic.
People who choose to keep their wood-fire heaters, or install new ones, need to manage them carefully. They should consider their location and ensure they are burning high-quality firewood in a well-maintained unit. The Environment Protection Authority ought to take a dim view of those who do not comply and repeatedly misuse their wood-fire heaters.
And perhaps tougher regulation, similar to the European Union's approach, is worth considering. Strict requirements to ensure no new wood-fire heaters are installed in Canberra that generate excessive pollution would prevent the city from sliding backwards on its efforts to clear the air.
The days of smoke billowing out across the ACT from poorly managed fires and unclean chimneys need to be well and truly put behind us. The experience of relentless and choking bushfire smoke that hung over Canberra in the last months of 2019 and into early 2020 should prompt every citizen to never take clean air for granted again.
Banning wood-fire heaters outright is not the answer. Well-managed, well-maintained fires being operated by conscientious citizens still have a place in Canberra. In the meantime, homeowners should continue to be encouraged to make the switch to more efficient alternatives. It is about recognising the impact our home comforts can have on others.
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