Snuffing Flames with Forest Management

By Anna Simet | July 02, 2013

On my mind this morning are the 19 firefighters who lost their lives battling the Yarnell Hills blaze in Arizona.

Going into it, they knew it was a risk—there was a chance that they may not come back. Wildfires can be extremely unpredictable, and the high, erratic winds driving this one was a perfect example of that.

It’s a terrible tragedy, but it is also a risk firefighters decide they want to take when they sign on—they agree to put their own lives on the line to try to help or save others.

Reading on about the status of the fire this morning, it’s ravaged nearly 8,400 acres northwest of Phoenix, and reports say that it was zero percent contained at sun down Monday.

It’s the worst case of loss battling a blaze since 1933, and the highest number of firefighters lost at one time in the U.S. since 9/11.

In the wake of situations like these, people search for things that could have been done differently—which, sometimes, is (frustratingly) nothing—and also, ways to help prevent or lessen the severity of future instances.

This made me think of the symposium that we held prior to last year’s International Biomass Conference & Expo, which was focused on forest treatment/wildfire prevention in the Rocky Mountain West and how the bioenergy industry could play a role. It was a smaller gather—I think around 100 of us—but there are some great ideas out there.

In the July issue of Biomass Magazine, you’ll find a contribution article written by Renae Magyar at Sustainable Northwest, which dicusses the large number of community-based biomass projects in the state, tying it all back to forest management and the need for continued funding. Here’s an exerpt:

The federal government is stuck in a cycle of fire suppression. Wildfires in the West are greatly increasing in scale and severity as the effects of climate change set in. In 2012 alone, 9 million acres (14,062 square miles) burned in the nation, of which 600,000 acres were in Oregon.

Through our Dry Forest Investment Zone program, Sustainable Northwest has helped establish conditions that allow integrated biomass campuses to be established in Oregon, and we continue to advocate for increased funding for large-scale federal forest restoration projects. Last year, the U.S. Forest Service spent $3 billion—half its annual budget—fighting wildfires, but only $350 million on forest management and restoration. We’re working to change that ratio.

 Though bioenergy applications—using small diameter, otherwise unusable trees for wood pellets or chips—aren’t going to be feasible in many cases, for a variety of reasons including wood inaccessibility and transportation costs, they will and have been in some places.

The underlying point here is regardless of whether the material is being used to make wood pellets or used in thermal boilers or not, forest management and restoration practices could help reduce the damage of a catastrophic fire, and maybe save some lives. Making the best possible use of the material is icing on the cake.