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Log Rhythms

El Nino or no, winter is tough when you have a mountain of firewood to move

January 11, 1998

you were a good friend of Steve Kowalczyk's a few years back, it's likely you'd open your back door to survey a firewood pile that didn't belong to you. Kowalczyk sells firewood today as he did then, but the most significant change in his business is that he now has a place of business--a windy corner in East Pasadena. In the early '90s, when Kowalczyk suffered a certain career malaise, friends occasionally found him on their front step with five or 10 cords of firewood (each weighing up to 2 tons) saying, "Hi. Could I leave this in your backyard until it sells?"

Now, Kowalczyk's mountain weighs as much as 2 million pounds. It is red and brown and yellow and white, and it peaks in size in September, the official start of L.A.'s firewood-selling season. There are layers of walnut, peach and almond from razed orchards in the San Joaquin Valley. There is red eucalyptus from Ventura, white oak from Modesto and bands of cedar, juniper and pinon pine out of Williams, Ariz. A beautiful, large pecan tree rises nearby like a verdant cloud over Kowalczyk's mountain, and if you ask him he will tell you, "Yeah, that tree would burn real nicely."

Kowalczyk's customers generally buy pine for its large flame, eucalyptus for its heady aroma and cedar because the wood ignites easily. When first-time buyers from Beverly Hills call Kowalczyk, they often ask for a cord of his most expensive wood, which is oak, and also notoriously difficult to light. "Usually they end up calling back a few days later," says Kowalczyk. A cord of cedar leaves for Beverly Hills.

Because the selling season is short, the purveyors of firewood become obsessive around weather maps. "You do not want to be near me when a five-day sunny forecast shows up in the paper," Kowalczyk says. The combination of beautiful weather and a no-show El Nino, say, can lead to friction among wood salesmen. When I told a competitor of Kowalczyk's that I had purchased my wood from yet a third competitor down the street--in some sections of Pasadena you can't throw a piece of oak without hitting a firewood salesman--he lowered his gaze. "The way I see it," he growled, "you two deserve each other."

Kowalczyk's wood arrives in East Pasadena on semis, averaging 15 cords to the truck, shipped in by remote wholesalers. (A cord of wood measures 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet, costs from $235 for mixed wood to $335 for oak, and in a good year Kowalczyk sells 1,300 of them.) "Sometimes," Kowalczyk says, "bandits take the wood right out of the orchard." Wood can go missing by other means. Overloaded trucks, stopped by highway inspectors, must often leave a portion of their load behind before resuming the haul into L.A. Which is why on some clear, cold winter nights, while driving north over the Grapevine, you can spot a cord of perfectly good oak sitting unattended and unlit, just off Interstate 5. --Dave Gardetta

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