By Heather Hager
A new management approach could empower communities to protect themselves from wildfire while
encouraging bioenergy development.
Many forest communities are looking at Slave Lake, Alberta, and wondering if the same thing might happen to them.
Communities in forested areas recognize the need to manage and minimize the fuel load in their immediate surroundings, reducing the risk of wildfires and facilitating their control. In British Columbia, the Firestorm 2003 report, commissioned by the provincial government and published in 2004, made a series of recommendations for community wildfire prevention. Since then, “only 2% of the forestland surrounding communities has been treated to reduce dangerous fuel loads,” writes report co-author and fire ecologist Robert Gray in a recent op-ed in the Vancouver Sun. He says that’s because provincial funding covers only a fraction of the cost of such treatments, and municipalities often cannot cover the remaining costs, particularly when extensive areas require attention.
Wildfires are becoming more extensive. As of July 7, Canada saw fewer forest fires in 2011 (2,202) than in 2010 (3,090). But those fires burned much more area: about 1.8 million hectares vs. 1.5 million, respectively, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. Similarly, in the United States, the area burned by wildfire in 2011 outstripped that burned by July 7 in the past 10 years, with 38,452 fires burning 2 million hectares so far in 2011, and 60,918 fires (almost 40% more) burning just 1.6 million hectares in 2006.
The United States is taking action. U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell recently “urged lawmakers to again provide full funding in 2012 for [forest fuel reduction] projects in nine states,” as communities whose perimeter forests have been thinned are clearly faring better with respect to fire than those whose forests were not, reports E&E News. Tidwell also recommended that the government continue investing in uses of small-diameter and unmerchantable fibre from thinning for renewable energy.
The U.S. Forest Service has awarded $3 million in grants to small businesses and communities for biomass-based renewable energy projects. The funds are allowing the groups to develop and install bioenergy facilities for heat and/or power to make use of biomass “removed from forests during projects such as wildfire prevention,” says a U.S. Department of Agriculture press release.
Because much of the responsibility for fuel reduction in Canada is placed on municipal governments, various stakeholders in British Columbia are proposing a simple solution. Give them jurisdiction over enough perimeter Crown land that the cost of thinning that area is offset by using the biomass in renewable energy projects such as district heating for municipal buildings. This seems like a “no-brainer”. After all, even forestry companies can only afford to harvest biomass as a supplementary product to higher-value timber.
In a mid-June presentation to the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (as reported by E&E News), U.S. Senator Jon Kyl said, “The cost of fighting the fires and reconstruction afterward far exceeds the prevention costs… It’s like any other medical situation: Prevention will save you a lot of money in the long run, but it does require an upfront commitment.”
Heather Hager, Editor