I have been experimenting with local fuels, here in the Orkney Islands where trees are rare.
The obvious potential fuels include: Driftwood, peat, grass, animal dung, heather and seaweeds. Land sources of scrap wood are not discussed here.
Driftwood used to be plentiful with lots of shipwrecked sailing ships and the abundant native woods of the Americas floating over on the North Atlantic Drift. Nowadays we get plastics washed up on the shore.
Sporadic bits of wood can be found, especially in bays, but this is mostly fast burning pallets and rarely bits of boats. These can supplement and slow down the burn but are insufficient for a winter supply.
Animal dung is not easy to collect and dry for domestic use, so I’ll leave that for methane digesters.
Peat is effectively made up of dead but not rotted heather, grass and sphagnum mosses. When dried this has been a a major fuel in Scotland and Ireland, in the absence of wood (for the poorer folks).
Spagnum moss is protected, it’s environment being endangered.
Grass is hard to collect in large enough quantities, burns with an acrid smell and has to be tied into faggots to slow down the burn. Faggots are bundles of small fuel made up usually by poor people who were forced to scavenge on the woodland floors owned by their overlords.
Heather goes up like rocket fuel, giving a hot and rapid flame with a lot of sizzling and a beautiful smell. But it too is now scarce and it’s environment needed for wildlife habitat.
Seaweeds are often very wet. The thick Kelp used to be dried by being draped over stone walls until it had dried in wind and sun (like peat) and was much reduced in size and weight. If gathered at the right time of year, large quantities can be harvested from the strand line when sun dried and reasonably crisp.
Wrack seaweeds cover the inter-tidal zone here beside our house and are the main weed of the strandline, useful for improving soil fertility. When dry they burn well too.
When a few days of dry weather follow a storm it is possible to fork good quantities of relatively light seaweed up to the house, where it needs to be stored dry. The wracks don’t really shrink much, just forming near black tangles of crispy weed. (Tang or Tangles are the local names for the traditional kelp fuel).
Most precious find on the shore forage is white coils of birch bark, rich in oil and traditional fire lighting magic. The fewer the trees, the less there is of this great material. Reforest folks, please.
What are most other people burning to heat their houses and cook food? Imported coal, oil, gas and electricity dominate, with imported peat and wood also on the market. Some electricity is generated locally on the islands, so this is the bulk local fuel, coming from wind and wave / tide.
How to best use these meagre local fuels? They all burn differently, with their own characteristics, flame colours and smells (lovely).
On a bed of dry wrack set a tiny piece of birch bark and lay over this bundles of dry heather tops. Add to this the thicker stems of the heather. Around this place the blocks of peat, with smaller pieces on top of the heather so that as it burns this collapses slowly, avoiding it bridging.
More seaweed can be added above the peat, to help weigh down and also dry it in preparation for burning.
A lot of ash is produced, so keep a good airflow.
Oh, I should point out, the smells of these fires are wonderful, with peat, seaweed and wood being very distinctive. Imagine walking home in the dark, being guided by the familiar smell of your own hearth, different from your neighbours.