California, USA — When a wildfire strikes California, the statesefforts to stop global warming go up in smoke.
A study released today of four large California wildfires shows theycollectively will put an estimated 38 million tons of greenhouse gases into theatmosphere through fire and subsequent decay of dead trees.
Together emissions from fire and decay undo much of the progress Californiais making to fight global warming.
Consider that the estimated 38 million tons of greenhouse gases is theequivalent of emissions from 7 million cars forone year.
Nearly 10 million tons of harmful greenhouse gases were emitted from thefires themselves, with an estimated 28 million additional tons of carbon dioxideemitted from decay, mostly in the next 50 years.
Reducing the number and severity of wildfiresmay be the single most important action we can take in the short-term to lowergreenhouse gas emissions and fight global warming,said the study’s author, Dr. Thomas Bonnicksen, a professor emeritus of forestryat Texas A&M University and author of America’s Ancient Forests: from theIce Age to the Age of Discovery (John Wiley, 2000). Dr. Bonnicksen, whoholds a Ph.D. in forestry from the University of California, Berkeley, hasstudied California forests for more than 30 years.
The study was conducted for the ForestFoundation, a non-profit organization that promotes education about thestates forests. The study is based on aground-breaking analytical tool developed for the Forest Foundation that allowsscientists to estimate greenhouse gases emitted by wildfire and subsequentforest decay.
The tool, called the Forest Carbon and Emissions Model, analyzes the impactof wildfires on global warming by considering a number of factors, includingvegetation density, tree species, mortality caused by a fire, and the removal ofdead trees and replanting new trees.
The study included extensive analysis of four fires:
The Angora Fire, which burned more than 3,100 acres near South Lake Tahoe in June and July of 2007.
The Fountain Fire, which destroyed nearly 60,000 acres east of Redding in August 1992.
The Star Fire, which burned more than 16,000 acres in September 2001 in the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests.
The Moonlight Fire, which burned more than 65,000 acres in September 2007 in and around the Plumas National Forest in the northern Sierra Nevada.
California as a state is committed to reducinggreenhouse gases, Dr. Bonnicksen said. Butthese fires demonstrate that much of the effort is wasted when wildfires spewhuge amounts of harmful gases into the air and then continue emitting gases fordecades as trees decay.
Even today, fires that ended months and years ago are still releasing carbondioxide into the atmosphere as dead trees left in the forest continue to decay.
While everyone sees and smells the harm wildfires cause to theenvironment, the damage is needlessly made worse by our failure to remove deadtrees and replant new forests, Dr. Bonnicksen said.
Removing fire-killed trees does two importantthings to fight global warming: it reduces the amount of harmful gases releasedafter a fire by reducing wood available for decay and it stores the carbon thatwould have been lost in long-lasting wood products,Dr. Bonnicksen said.
Dr. Bonnicksen added that, removing dead treesand replanting to restore the forest can reverse the impact of wildfires onglobal warming by recovering most if not all the carbon dioxide lost to the atmosphere from fire and decay.In addition, he said, it would also help protectsurrounding forests and communities from a second wildfire or re-burn, whichoften occurs in un-restored forests that become brush fields filled with deadtrees.
Unfortunately, Dr. Bonnicksen noted, the federal government doesntmove quickly to remove fire-killed trees and replant. For the Angora andMoonlight fires of 2007, no removal of dead trees has occurred on federallyowned lands and there is no plan to replant those areas.
In contrast, private forest landowners swiftly remove dead trees, turningthem into wood products used by consumers rather than allowing them to decay andsend carbon dioxide into the air, and then they replant a new forest.
These wood products continue to store carbonand a young, replanted and well-managed forest absorbs carbon at a fast rate,Dr. Bonnicksen said. He added, If we care aboutour forests and fighting global warming then we must reduce the threat ofwildfire and remove dead trees and replant if a wildfire occurs.