October 19, 2007

Watch 60 Minutes - Warming Climate Fuels Mega-fires

I recommend that my readers watch a story on CBS 60 Minutes this Sunday, October 21st. You can read it first at Expert: Warming Climate Fuels Mega-Fires - including my online comment. Like so many investigative stories on television, they create a significant amount of viewer outrage without offering solutions.

I am glad they are pointing out that "Seven of the 10 busiest fire seasons have been since 1999." What they don't point out is that 50% of the Forest Service budget has been allocated to fighting forest fires and obstructive litigation rather than deploying proven prevention measures.

Forests are now 4-10 times denser than their historic norm (when they were open enough for a horse to gallop through). Now dense underbrush and small diameter trees hamper walking and fire-fighting. That, coupled with warmer, dryer conditions, is what is causing these fires.

I witnessed a persuasive presentation at a workshop sponsored by UC/Berkeley and the USDA/Forest Service last month that thinning forests works. Through a series of photographs Ron Vineyard of the Eagle Lake Ranger District of the Lassen National Forest showed how the 2002 Cone Fire in Northern California extinguished itself within about 20 yards of its entry into the mechanically thinned zone. Their studies place the cost of suppressing a fire in an unthinned forest at $1,726/acre. The cost of mechanically thinning a forest with an underburn is approximately $204 per acre. An ounce of prevention is, indeed, worth a pound of cure.

With the benefits of thinning so obvious I asked him what the biggest hurdle was for the Forest Service. He said "Infrastructure." He explained that there wasn't sufficient private industry demand for the fuelwood to make publicly financed thinning operations economically sustainable.

Currently the forest products industry is not robust enough to fill the breach. But there is significant promise that new tech biorefineries will be able to cleanly convert woody biomass (fuelwood and underbrush) into cellulosic ethanol.

For now, I would like to see environmental groups restrain themselves from attacking Forest Service fire prevention programs they plan to deploy. If they care about global warming they should recognize that mega-fires now spew more greenhouse gas emissions per year than all the auto emissions of the U.S. combined.

I will be attending the Society of American Foresters National Convention in Portland, Oregon October 23-24 and presenting my speech Woody Biomass: Fuel for Wildfires or Feedstock for Bioenergy? October 25th at the Residual Wood Conference in Vancouver, BC.

technorati , , ,

No comments: