‘Fuel for the next fire.’ Why California can’t unload the trees that worsen its wildfires: Sacramento Bee

IMHO, this is a really really good story.  Unfortunately, it’s for subscribers of the Sacramento Bee only.  Fortunately, they have a 99 cent day rate (yay, wish everyone had that). There are also excellent videos and photos.  I think it’s particularly interesting to contrast the kind of conversations in California with those of Oregon.

State and federal officials, as well as forestry experts, say California doesn’t have nearly enough lumber mills to process the trees — dead or alive — that need to come out of the state’s 33 million acres of forestland to reduce the risk of megafires. California suffers from a similar shortage of biomass plants, which make electricity out of trees and brush hauled out of the woods.

So the timber stays in the forests.

“It’s fuel for the next fire,” said Tim Robards, a staff chief at Cal Fire who oversees forest health and wood products issues.

Robards said the problem has worsened in the past two years, during which 6.7 million acres burned. The surge of dead and dying trees is clogging the state’s meager fleet of mills and biomass plants, he said.

The problem is intensifying at the very moment state and federal agencies are trying to reduce the density of California’s forests. The U.S. Forest Service, which manages 20 million acres of California land, says the shortage of mills and plants makes it hard to even plan the fuels-reduction projects it wants to undertake.

“We lack sufficient infrastructure to make as much progress as everyone would like us to do,” said Larry Swan, a wood utilization and biomass specialist with the Forest Service.

There’s no obvious quick fix for “this deficit of capacity,” as Robards called it. The facilities have been in decline for decades — lumber mills have been disappearing since the early 1990s, largely because of environmental restrictions, and the biomass industry has been battered by competition from cheaper energy sources.

“We had this robust infrastructure,” said Mike De Lasaux, a retired forester with UC Cooperative Extension. “Now we see these humongous piles of treetops and small trees that have no place to go.”

There’s a detailed discussion of biomass and the difficulties of getting biomass plants established.

It’s a tragedy,” said Brett Storey, the recently retired biomass manager for Placer County. “All of that material would be utilized instead of going up in smoke every summer.”
Storey spent years trying to get a biomass plant built near Lake Tahoe. A proposed site near Kings Beach faltered when residents and local officials objected to an industrial facility opening in the Tahoe basin. County officials then chose a spot near Truckee, but that fell apart four years ago when they couldn’t make a deal with the area’s electric company, Liberty Utilities, to buy the plant’s energy.
Now the county is trying again. After the Caldor Fire nearly burned down South Lake Tahoe this summer, county officials are taking a fresh look at the biomass project.
“There’s just a great sense of urgency,” said Kerri Timmer, the county’s regional forest health coordinator.
The state has tried to revive the industry, with some success. An auction-based program called BioRAM, which requires utilities to purchase biomass power, has enabled some plants to garner higher prices for their electricity than they can negotiate on their own. The program has saved at least one plant that was about to shut down, Burney Forest Power in Shasta County.
But not everyone’s eligible.
In the Sierra County town of Loyalton, the American Renewable Power biomass plant was consuming 100,000 tons of wood annually until it closed last year. One reason was price: Because of issues around its connection to the power grid, the Loyalton plant wasn’t eligible for the BioRAM program and couldn’t negotiate a decent rate for its energy.
Jeff Holland, who runs a logging company near Placerville, purchased the Loyalton site for $825,000 and is trying to resume operations. But startup costs are higher than expected, and he isn’t sure when it will reopen. He thinks the state must do more to support biomass.
“Logical thinking people who are tired of breathing smoke and tired of losing our national treasures believe biomass should be in the picture,” Holland said

Biomass plants are so limited in number, it often doesn’t pay to haul the wood out of forests that have been thinned. Instead, it gets stacked up and burned in the open, polluting the air. “For a lot of that biomass that’s being produced, particularly in the forested areas, there isn’t a market for it,” said Steve Eubanks, a retired Forest Service official who’s trying to build a biomass plant near Grass Valley. “They’re either leaving it on the ground or piling it or burning it.”
Often, the piles sit a long while. The regional air district has to issue a burn permit. The weather has to cooperate — if it’s too windy, the fire could blow out of control, as when the Caples Fire burned part of the Eldorado National Forest in 2019.
“It’s a struggle to burn our piles, and, yes, we have a backlog,” said Swan of the Forest Service.

I recommend a read of the whole piece. What seems to be missing for me is that our energy policies don’t reflect the risk reduction benefits of biomass removal. Biomass can only win by being cheaper than wind and solar. But nuclear folks will tell us that intermittent energy sources need backup. Then wind and solar folks will point to batteries or pumped hyro or homes as batteries, all unproven technologies at scale, plus issues around mining and trade in minerals needed for batteries. The old decarbonizing technology horserace. But today we could be running forest biomass plants with the technology we have And do risk reduction for wildfires, and contribute to air quality (instead of burning in piles). Perhaps the difficulty is ultimately policy siloing. And California’s working to tackle it.

6 thoughts on “‘Fuel for the next fire.’ Why California can’t unload the trees that worsen its wildfires: Sacramento Bee”

  1. We have seen this happen before, in the southern Sierra Nevada. The one lumber mill was able to capture much of the beetle-killed trees on private lands, but did not have any room to purchase the millions of board feet of dead timber on the National Forests. Instead, all that dead timber was left in place, as fuel for the next inevitable wildfires. We saw what happened with the Creek Fire. Then we saw more, last year, as fires burned through Sequoia groves, killing more than 10,000 protected trees.

    I do think it is likely that much of the Caldor and Dixie Fire mortality on public lands will go unharvested. Additionally, much of those burns shouldn’t be replanted unless they are salvaged. We do have clues about the future of those burned areas, by looking at Yosemite National Park. When a piece of ground burns three times since 1990, we should consider the results of leaving forests ‘to recover on their own’.


    • It’s a real problem. Even the existing mills here Southwestern Oregon are losing the infrastructure that used their sawdust and hog fuel. Maybe we could take some of that fire money and subsidise a biomass plant and turn theses byproducts into renewable energy. Some of our rural counties could become green energy producers.

      • In those unsalvaged areas of dead trees (moderate to high intensity), we may have to wait until the next fire ‘cleans’ out the snags killed by the current fire. After ‘Mother Nature’ performs her version (human or natural ignition) of ‘site prep’, then would be a good time for planted trees. It may be a reality we will have to incorporate into longterm National Forest planning ideas. Certainly, the lack of salvage in the southern Sierra Nevada is having longterm impacts on the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests (not to mention the National Parks and Monument). They are out of options, now.


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