Thermal Energy can Reduce the Next Big Fire

By Joseph Seymour & Rob Davis | August 22, 2012

High Park. Waldo Canyon. Shingle. Those are three of the reported 29,151 U.S. forest fires that have burned nearly 2.4 million acres from January 2012 through Independence Day, according to the National Interagency Forest Center. The increasing number and size of our nation’s wildfires indicates that our forests need further, more effective management, and there is agreement that fuels reduction, fire hazard mitigation within the Wildland Urban Interface, and restoration should occur in larger volumes and more rapidly. When forests are better managed, the surrounding communities and biomass markets mutually benefit.

Eastern Arizona’s 2011 Wallow Fire demonstrated the undeniable value of fuels reduction measures. Witnesses on the scene and a report from the U.S. Forest Service attest to how these treatments saved communities from destruction, and enabled firefighters to gain control of wildfires. In one picture, the fuels treatment line clearly separates charred destruction from intact trees and homes.  

However, not any treatment will do. A plan must be carefully agreed upon by scientists, foresters, and other stakeholders. When such a fuels reduction and treatment plan is instituted, there are multiple benefits to the affected forestland, community and regional economy. These include reduced fire hazards, safer communities, more resilient forests, improved watersheds and wildlife habitat, improved recreation opportunities, additional and sustainable source of biomass, as well as access to local resources for wood product manufacturing and energy production.

If fuel treatments are so valuable, why aren’t they more widely employed? The reason is a combination of the high cost of fuels reduction and the low value of the residuals removal. While conventional wood products industries can access the higher-value wood, the majority of the removed materials consist of small trees unsuitable for those products. This challenge provides biomass market opportunities. In rural locations with high fossil fuel costs, these residues can be and are used to produce energy fuels such as chips, pellets or cordwood for thermal and electrical energy, as well as biofuels for transportation.

 Forest restoration efforts like those in the White Mountain Stewardship Project area can be funded in part by markets for low-value residual materials. And, when residues go toward high-efficiency end uses such as thermal energy, the resource becomes more valuable and can receive a higher price. The obvious—but overlooked—benefits from heating with local biomass include affordable heat for homes, schools, hospitals and communities, new and permanent local jobs from forest utilization, and reduced export of local wealth while importing energy and forest products.  Simply stated, biomass thermal applications mean more money for forest restoration efforts and more self-sustaining rural communities. 

BTEC encourages the ongoing management of our nation’s forests through appropriate forest prescriptions and utilization of residues. Together, these efforts benefit the forest, forest communities and our nation’s energy portfolio. Thermal energy is an efficient solution for achieving this forest work and provides solutions that our rural communities so desperately need: economic and physical security.

Authors: Joseph Seymour
Executive Director, Biomass Thermal Energy Council
Rob Davis
President, Forest Energy Corp.