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Bioenergy and U.S. Wildfire Mitigation Strategy

By Kolby Hoagland | April 11, 2014

Earlier this week the U.S. federal government released The National Strategy: The Final Phase in the Development of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. In it, the federal government lays out a rough framework to unite local, state, and federal efforts that mitigate the negative repercussions from wildfires in forests and rangelands. The report discusses three primary areas where action should be focused to abate the loss of natural resources, property, and life. Agencies should aim to restore and maintain landscapes, held communities to adapt to fire, and create effective wildfire response strategies.  With a significant drought bearing down the western U.S.,  this fire season is stacking up to be a bad one, and action is desperately needed.

Other than proscribed burns, which send potential feedstock and massive amounts of particulate matter into the air, the report identifies thinning and clearing as a viable option to minimize the threat of fire. Thinning operations are often costly and deliver lower grade timber that cannot be used for directional lumber. Forest thinning, however, is an excellent feedstock for bioenergy installation and other forest product manufacturing that can utilize smaller diameter trees. The map below shows where active management by non-proscribed fire would be beneficial along with the relative strength of the forest products market in the specific region. The blue areas on the map distinguish areas where the forests need thinning to mitigate fire and the forest products market is relatively weak.

Fire Treatment Areas

Bioenergy developers might look to the weak forest products market areas for available feedstock and site locations where bioenergy instillations would be advantageous for the surrounding community. To reduce fuel loading in forests and maximize the economic opportunity in these areas, we hope that appropriate supports and incentives are built into the federal government’s ultimate strategy to lessen the threat that wildfires bring to forest communities.

A considerable burden in carrying out forest mitigation strategies is the cost of the action that is proscribed, whether thinning and removal or proscribed burn. By including bioenergy development supports and incentives into fire mitigation strategies, a portion or the entirety of the cost to carry out the thinning could be recouped by selling the forest biomass to bioenergy installation. Along with recoved cost, the biomass would be transformed into an energy product through technologies that incorporate air emissions controls, making the bioenegy option far superior to proscribed burns in regards to air emissions. Bioenergy has a strong role to play in wildfire management, but the federal government needs to state that, which it doesn’t, not even once, in the National Strategy report.