September 29, 2007

Woody Biomass: Fuel for Wildfires

This article contains the text and some images from the first half of a speech I presented at the Energy from Biomass and Waste conference in Pittsburgh, PA on September 27. It leads into the second half of the presentation titled Woody Biomass: Feedstock for BioEnergy which describes the existing and emerging technologies that can utilize woody biomass for the production of bioenergy - heat, steam, electricity, and biofuels. Many of the statistics and photos come from an excellent Forest Foundation publication titled Protecting Communities and Saving Forests.

Woody Biomass: Fuel for Wildfires

I believe that the conversion of biomass to energy represents not only a sustainable, clean alternative to fossil fuel energy but that implementing these emerging technologies can help us solve environmental and ecological challenges of the new millennium.

This presentation will focus on just one environmental challenge - wildfires in the continental U.S. - and how a robust woody biomass conversion industry can provide tools to lessen the threat to our forests.

There are over 10 million private forest owners in the U.S. Although you could say that the country experienced “deforestation” during its early development, the acreage of forests have not diminished at all during the last 100 years. Forests have provided fuel and created great industries for furniture, construction, and paper - industries that sequester carbon.

Unfortunately, these industries that are now stagnating and, in some cases, staggering under the multiple pressures of cheap imports, crusades against forest use, and timberland sell-offs due to skyrocketing real estate prices.

Added to these pressures is the appropriation of more lands to public ownership shifting responsibility to management by the USDA Forest Service.

Some groups seek to preserve forests, biodiversity, and wildlife habitats by severely limiting access by the forest product industries and, through litigation, micromanaging the public forest services charged with insuring forest health.
I contend that it is simply not economically feasible or sustainable for public agencies to take proper care of forests under these conditions.

Forest health has suffered greatly from wildfires and bug infestations.

Wildfires and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
We all know that healthy forests are capable of sequestering vast amounts of greenhouse gases which is a leading cause of global warming.

But we are just starting to recognize that forests can emit vast amounts of GHG through burning and decaying. Here are some numbers pulled together by the California Air Resources Board comparing the average emissions of major geographic sectors. Notice that wildfire emissions dwarf the volume from the other sources combined!

Satellite photographs taken during the last four years of wildfire’s devastating impacts on public lands provide clear evidence of the extent of this travesty.

In Congressional testimony Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico testified that when the Hayman Fire burned in Colorado in 2002, NASA scientists estimated that the fire was emitting more carbon dioxide in one day than all the vehicles in the United States emitted in a week. It lasted 14 days.

Since 2002 mega-fires have gotten worse.

In 2003 the San Diego Cedar Fire (click to enlarge) was the largest in California history lasting 8 days and consuming an area half the size of Rhode Island. Here is a satellite photo of the emissions - so dense that air traffic control towers in L.A. and San Diego were closed for a period of time.

Simultaneously, a fire was burning in the San Bernardino Mountains, just east of L.A. It lasted two weeks and destroyed more than 1,000 other homes. Fortunately it stopped before reaching resort towns near Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear, shown in the upper right corner. If it had it would have decimated evergreen trees that were already sick, dead, or dying from bark beetle infestations - which, incidentally, is what happened in Big Bear two weeks ago. The lakeside community of Fawnskin had to be evacuated by the 15,000 acre fire. The smoke plume from this fire reached far north into Nevada.

Here is what a burned forest looks like (click to enlarge) - charred remains stripped of its leaves and pine needles and in active decay. According to the Forest Foundation the impact of wildfires does not end with the smoke. During decay trees emit about 300% more greenhouse gases than what was emitted during the fire.

Most of the charred remains need to be removed and the lands replanted. Unfortunately, “Nearly four years after fires burned more than 133,000 acres of national forest land in California, less than one percent of those acres have been replanted.”

Just Monday, Senator Craig of Idaho gave testimony in Congress stating that over $2 Billion has been spent this year fighting forest fires while less than $600 million has been spent on preventing them.

Indeed, 2007 has seen a startling upsurge in mega-fires. The Angora Fire, a 3,100 acre blaze in South Lake Tahoe, was responsible for emitting the equivalent of 143,000 cars for an entire year. A blaze 15 times that size devastated Montana.

On July 4th a fire broke out in the Santa Barbara mountains. A week later in Yosemite a satellite photo series was posted throughout the park warning hikers of the health impacts caused by the fire 180 miles away. Driving south through Bakersfield the sun was blotted out by the smoke. The fire lasted another two weeks.

The point is that MORE greenhouse gases are emitted each year from wildfires than we are likely to save in a decade of reduced vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. We can do much better.

Wildfire Impact on Wildlife
They say the road to hell - in this case wildfires - is paved with good intentions. Activists mount crusades and file litigation to protect endangered species which frustrate attempts to fix forest health problems that lead to wildfires.

It is impossible to estimate the impact of wildfires on wildlife but even if the species escape, it leads to overcrowding in surrounding ecologies. But not even mobile animals are immune from the quick moving fires. Like the victims of Pompei most animals die from asphyxiation. Fires can boil streams which kill the fish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department reports that Georgia’s largest fire ever that started in the Okefenokee Swamp this year was also the most expensive ever for the agency.

The problem of forest density
According to Texas A&M professor Dr. Tom Bonnicksen, a founder of the Forest Foundation, the problem is one of forest density. Our forests have 4 to 10 times as many trees per acre as they used to have. People used to be able to gallop through forests - now it is hard to walk through them or fight fires within them.

Excess forest biomass in the form of small diameter trees, and underbrush create a kindling “ladder of fuel” that helps surface fires spiral up to the crowns of trees. Once there, a fire storm can evolve whipped by winds to spread rapidly in all directions.

Public agencies waste precious funds to fight the wildfires - the symptoms of unhealthy forests - rather than invest it in efforts to restore and manage forest health through thinning. When asked what the biggest hurdle is to deploying thinning programs that are important to restoring forest health, field Forest Service planners say "infrastructure." Without forest product industries to convert the woody biomass to carbon sequestering products and bioenergy, there is no where to store the collected woody biomass and no economically sustainable way to help pay for the program.

To restore forests to a healthy condition, Dr. Bonnicksen recommends a three step, economically sustainable solution that involves private industry who would restore and maintain forest stewardship as part of their operating overhead.
1. First they would harvest decaying biomass
2. Then reforest to a historic model specific to the forest, and
3. Third mechanically thin vulnerable forests of woody biomass as part of their stewardship.

The USDA Forest Service could provide oversight of the program.

The followup presentation is titled Woody Biomass: Feedstock for BioEnergy

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