Biomass removal targeted at summit; risk of bigger wildfires would be reduced

Biomass removal targeted at summit; risk of bigger wildfires would be reduced

15 February 2012

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USA — Since 1999 about half a million acres of forest have burned in Trinity County, but the damage didn’t have to be that widespread, a county supervisor said Wednesday.

About 260,000 of those acres burned in 2008, when dry lightning moved and caused wildfires over large swaths of the north state, said Roger Jaegel, a supervisor from Hayfork.

The fires wouldn’t have burned as hot and done as much damage if the forests in Shasta and Trinity counties had been thinned of smaller trees that forestry officials call “biomass,” Jaegel said.

The Trinity County supervisor was at a “summit” in Redding on Wednesday where about 30 people gathered to try to figure out ways to get more biomass out of the forests. Removing biomass would reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, improve the health of forests and create jobs, Jaegel said.

“This is an extremely important issue to Trinity County,” Jaegel said.

The summit was organized by the Sierra Institute, a nonprofit agency based in Taylorsville in Plumas County. Conference attendees came from as far away as Berkeley and represented such groups as timber companies, nonprofit resource agencies, the U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, environmental groups and local government.

Most biomass is made up of trees from 3 to 10 inches in diameter, said Joe Smailes, an ecosystems operations team leader with the Plumas National Forest around Quincy.

Many forests in the north state and Sierra Nevada are choked with little trees that aren’t valuable for lumber, he said. Because the trees are so thick, they make perfect fuel for wildfires.

Removing thickets of small trees would open up the forest, leaving fewer and larger trees that make forests more resistant to fire, said Bruce Goines, an ecosystems service group leader with the U.S. Forest Service’s regional office in Vallejo.

Officials attending the summit said one of their challenges was to come up with ways to make it more profitable to remove biomass from forests.

Currently, most biomass is chipped up and sold to cogeneration plants, which burn the chips to generate electricity.

Smailes said cogeneration plants are paying too much for the wood chips and not getting paid enough for the energy they produce.

“In our area, we’ve had plants close,” Smailes said.

Chris Trott, fuel manager for Wheelabrator Shasta Energy Company in Anderson, said biomass is low value wood compared with larger trees that are cut up into lumber. He said gathering and removing biomass is expensive compared to what is sold for.

Some of the other possible uses for biomass are firewood, poles and fence posts, wood shavings, paper chips used to make paper and “biochar,” Trott said. Biochar is made by heating wood and creating a charcoal-like material that can be used as a fuel and as a fertilizer.

Jaegel said developing new uses for biomass could help reduce Trinity County’s high unemployment rate by providing more jobs. It would also help reduce the damage from future wildfires, he said.

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