We Can Prevent Forest Fires With a Biomass Strategy

By Bob Cleaves | May 31, 2010
After a long, cold winter, the summer is finally here. For most Americans, this is the season of cookouts, bonfires and fireworks. But these warm months also bring a different, dangerous kind of blaze: forest fires.

Seemingly every year, forest fires burn through millions of acres across the country, devastating communities and causing billions of dollars in damage. The sad truth is that regular forest maintenance could greatly impede the speed and ferocity with which these fires spread; reducing costs to fight them and protecting homes and lives in harm's way. The climate legislation currently being considered by Congress should take into account that in addition to being a valuable renewable energy source, the biomass industry helps to reduce the spread of forest fires by clearing highly flammable debris from the forest floor.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, in 2009 alone there were nearly 80,000 wildfires burning through almost 6 million acres across the United States. Forest fires are often fueled by excess small trees and brush that choke forests and create fire ladders that direct fires into the crowns of the largest trees. These varying tree densities and the dead, dry brush left behind act as kindling to allow crown fires to move across the landscape in a highly destructive manner.

The biomass power industry is uniquely positioned to improve forest health and reduce the threat of forest fires, while at the same time provide clean, renewable electricity to Americans in every region of the country. Without proper forest maintenance-including managed thinning and prescribed burns-forest waste is left to build up over time and stoke the flames of future fires. The biomass power industry is prepared to work directly with the U.S. Forest Service and other industry partners, as well as environmental groups, to ensure that forest material is carefully removed and converted to produce green electrical power.

Some environmental groups fear that the biomass industry will clear-cut forests for fuel. This fear can be put to rest. It is not the practice of the biomass power industry to clear-cut forests and it is simply not economically viable to chop down whole trees to generate electricity. Biomass power uses only waste material such as scrap lumber, forest debris, or agricultural harvest waste to generate clean electricity, material that would otherwise be dumped in landfills, openly burned, or left as fodder for forest fires. Currently, the biomass power industry removes more than 68.8 million tons of forest waste annually.

The biomass power industry effectively encourages regular forest management by creating a market for the excess small trees, slash and brush that are choking many of our forests. Removing this incentive to clear brush by discouraging biomass power would result in overgrown, unmanaged forests that pose an increased risk for forest fires.

Furthermore, generating electricity from biomass actually reduces greenhouse gases. As dead brush decomposes it releases harmful methane gas and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. During the electricity-generating process, biomass power eliminates methane gas and reduces the carbon dioxide that would have been emitted otherwise. Accounting for displaced fossil fuels, the biomass power industry removes more than 30 million tons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere annually.

The climate legislation introduced by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., with its focus on stimulating the renewable energy industry, presents an opportunity for the biomass industry to gain the recognition it deserves as a viable and mature renewable energy source. Not only will more aggressive renewable energy mandates reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but these mandates will also spur new investment in biomass power and encourage the maintenance necessary to clear the waste debris responsible for fueling the massive forest fires witnessed around the country in recent years.

Reducing the intensity and extent of forest fires by improving forest health will also lower costs for containment and keep firefighters and communities out of harm's way. Sens. Kerry and Lieberman are leading a new national agenda to build a clean energy economy. With the goals of reducing forest fires, creating jobs, and improving the environment, biomass power stands to lead the way in the renewable energy sector.

Bob Cleaves is president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association. To learn more about biomass power, please visit www.USABiomass.org.