By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

A slowdown in the national housing market is severely affecting many Del Norte County residents' home heating this winter.

andquot;U.S. pellet manufacturers have come up short this winter,andquot; said Peter Brand, vice president of Pinnacle Pellet Fuels, a Quebec, Canada-based company.

That's because when there's not a lot of demand for new home construction, companies that mill the boards used in homes cut back on their production.

The result is less sawdust - the key ingredient in the pellets people burn to heat their homes with pellet stoves.

If you own a pellet stove, you're already painfully aware of the inavailability of the fuel they use.

Adding to consumers' frustration is the increase of the per-bag price for pellets from $3 or $4 to as high as $7 per bag. The stoves cost from $1,700-$3,600.

But the situation gets worse.

Many of the stoves can burn only pellets, as they're not designed for other fuels.

Translation? If you own only a pellet stove, hope that spring comes soon.

andquot;Normally the Canadian suppliers could step in, but the Canadian suppliers contracted last year with the U.S. Northeast and Europe,andquot; Brand said.

Because of the shortage, the New York Consumer Board asked consumers and retailers to ration the limited supply of processed pellets in December.

Consumers who don't have an adequate supply of pellets may have to choose to either shiver or to invest in an another source of energy.

Fortunately, the winter has been fairly warm in parts of the nation this winter, but even that won't help residents who live in this part of the country.

andquot;At this point it doesn't make sense for them to ship from the Northeast to the northwest U.S,andquot; Brand said.

Some British Columbia, Canada, pellet suppliers are shipping to the West Coast, he said. One recently sent 12,000 tons of pellets to Bear Mountain Company in Cascade Locks, Ore.

Retailers in Crescent City, aware of the problem for months, are behind in their pellet supplies.

andquot;I've had a big problem since September,andquot; said Mike Rossini, manager of Coast True Value.

Rossini has 100 tons of pellets. Normally he would be able to replenish his supply as customers purchase bags of the fuel.

andquot;I should be getting three trucks of pellets,andquot; he said. andquot;My supplier is allocating what he has.andquot;

Because of the allocations from Lignetics, in Rossini's case, Coast True Value consistently receives smaller deliveries.

andquot;The problem is that the mills aren't running at their full capacity,andquot; said Rossini. andquot;They weren't producing as much lumber, then we hit the holidays and they shut down for two weeks.andquot;

The situation should stabilize by next winter, Brand said. But he expects a run on pellets when they become available this summer.

andquot;What happens after a year like this is that people rush out and buy pounds of the pellets in July,andquot; he said. andquot;They probably won't need to, but that's what I'd be doing.andquot;

The New York City-based Consumer Protection Board estimates that most homeowners need about three tons of pellets to heat their homes for an entire winter.

It also recommends that retailers who have pellets ration their sales to 10 40- or 50-pound bags per customer.