In much of California and particularly in the Sierra Nevada, the frequency, size and intensity of wildfires are increasing, destroying the precious resources our forests provide. And this trend, documented with a great deal of research, is predicted to continue.
Due to the heavy build-up of hazardous fuels, few forest wildfires are now “natural.” Fire suppression in the past century has been so successful at controlling wildfires that forests which before would have been naturally thinned now are choked with fuels ready to explode when ignited.
Catastrophic wildfires create two significant and negative effects – they release huge amounts of harmful pollutants into the air and destroy trees that help to reduce the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Wildfires also lead to loss of soil nutrients, damage sensitive watersheds and destroy critical wildlife habitat.
The good news is that something can be done to reduce these devastating effects.
Active, responsible and strategically planned forest management activities, including thinning and prescribed burning, are needed on a broad scale to restore California forests to a more natural and fire-resistant state, and reduce these harmful impacts.
Thinning has been shown in practice and research to reduce the size and intensity of wildfires by widening tree spacing and removing smaller trees and brush, which serve as ladder fuels that move low-intensity ground fires into the tree tops to become raging crown fires.
Thinning operations also produce conventional wood products and biomass “slash” – the limbs, tops and smaller trees that have little market value. Some dead trees and other biomass are left for wildlife habitat and to help build soil nutrients, but the excess simply contributes to increased fire hazard. Rather than burning or chipping it in the forest so that it decays and emits atmospheric carbon – typical current practices – this excess biomass can be transported to cogeneration facilities where it is burned efficiently and cleanly to produce electricity.
These operations return overstocked and unhealthy forests to conditions more like those which existed a century or more ago. This reduces the number and effects of catastrophic wildfires, increases the growth and carbon-storage capability of remaining trees, generates renewable electrical energy that offsets fossil fuel use, and provides wood-based building materials that displace the need for energy-intensive cement and steel.
And at a time when so many rural areas have been economically devastated, these operations can help to restore communities whose residents have historically relied on forest-management operations for their livelihood.
But insufficient funding is available for widespread implementation of responsible forest-thinning programs. The result is a continuing buildup of biomass in our forests, which when coupled with the effects of climate change is fueling the steady increase in wildfire size and intensity.
One potential solution being explored in Placer County, home to North Lake Tahoe and some of California’s most beautiful and valuable forests, is the use of monetary credits from a local carbon market to help pay for strategic forest-management programs that would include activities like thinning, transporting chipped biomass to energy-generation facilities, and reforesting bare or under-stocked forest areas.
It is essential for these activities to be reflected in carbon-accounting protocols being developed for the implementation of AB 32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2006. These protocols will ensure that carbon reductions from forest-management programs are in addition to business-as-usual conditions, they are not double counted, and the full range of potential impacts is accurately tracked.
The Placer initiative also will involve analysis of additional benefits provided by effective forest management, including protection and enhancement of water resources and wildlife habitat.
Through these efforts, we hope to facilitate implementation of forest-management programs that will help reduce the risks and consequences of wildfires and at the same time ensure the sustainability of our cherished forests.
We see it as a situation where the forests, wildlife and residents all benefit, and we look forward to a future when California’s approaching fire season is met with a much lower level of anxiety.
Jim Holmes is a Placer County Supervisor representing District 3, including the City of Auburn, and member of the Placer County Air Pollution Control District Board of Directors; Jennifer Montgomery is a Placer County Supervisor representing District 5, including Lake Tahoe’s North Shore. Both are members of the Placer County Wildfire Protection and Biomass Policy Team.