Bad news first: The Methow Valley is at ground-zero for wildfire risk. As recently reported in the Methow Valley News, Methow, Winthrop and Twisp are ranked first, sixth and seventh most at-risk communities in the entire state.
The good news: We have the astonishing good fortune of having the means to reduce our local risk while meaningfully combatting climate change.
Climate change is increasing the size and severity of wildfire. Most of us get that. We also need to understand that wildfires drive climate change by releasing massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Carbon emitted from wildfires is estimated to be 20% of total global emissions. If we are to counter climate change, we must reckon with wildfire.
Our practices in the last 100 years have created tremendous ecological imbalances throughout our forests. The forests surrounding the valley are severely overcrowded with small, unmerchantable trees. Where once there were 20 or fewer trees per acre, now there are commonly hundreds that are stressed and unhealthy. Across the landscape, fuel loads are far higher than they historically were. Combined with longer, hotter fire seasons, that is a formula for extreme fire behavior.
We need healthy forests to combat climate change. The forests are pumps that pull carbon out of the atmosphere and turn it into plant material. When fire kills an entire forest stand, it shuts down the carbon pump for many years. The fight against climate change will be won or lost before that capacity is recovered. For the purpose of combatting climate change, our forests are non-renewable resources.
To protect our community from climate change, we must restore forest health and resilience as quickly as possible. That includes removing excess fuels. This material is 50% carbon (dry weight) that will otherwise be released back into the atmosphere — either by burning or decomposing. Let’s avoid that. These materials can be processed it into a number of useful products.
Some products will store (sequester) carbon for many years — removing it from the cycle that returns it to the atmosphere. These include an array of construction materials such as posts, poles, dowels and veneers, and also “biochar” (charcoal). Biochar is up to 90% carbon in a form that doesn’t decompose. It has many uses, but here’s my pick: as a soil amendment, it can greatly increase soil fertility while continuing to store the carbon for hundreds of years.
I am part of a group investigating the potential to start locally processing excess forest materials into a mix of products — prioritizing those that sequester carbon — as quickly as possible. Our intent is to bring a well-founded proposal to the community for consideration and discussion. And then to build the organization necessary to begin implementation.
We understand, going into this effort, that the economics of getting these materials out of the forest and processing them will be challenging. The economics will change when incentives are established for sequestering carbon. In the meantime, there are other compelling considerations, such as:
• reducing wildfire risks to our community, economy and health.
• improving forest health and resilience. This is essential for the ecosystem to successfully adapt to climate change.
• creating local jobs.
• reducing the costs of fighting wildfires. Washington state spent over $60 million fighting the Carlton Complex Fire. Federal spending on fire suppression has increased by 600% in the last 30 years. In 2015, the Forest Service spent more than half its budget fighting fire.
Technologies for producing building materials are well understood. By contrast, clean, high-efficiency biochar production involves relatively new technology. A pilot biochar plant to process materials that are not otherwise useful would cost perhaps $4 million. It could produce enough high-quality biochar to offset the carbon footprint of over 400 average Americans.
That capacity could be doubled for under $1 million. Being modular, it could be scaled up repeatedly. Just think — what the state spent fighting the Carlton Complex Fire could have paid more than twice over to make the Methow Valley carbon-negative through biochar production — with reduced wildfire risks, improved forest health and healthier, more-productive soils.
We envision our valley as a vibrant, thriving carbon-negative community set in a healthy and resilient landscape. This is vitally important and do-able. Averting extreme wildfire is our opportunity to make an enormous difference in the fight against climate change, while doing the right thing for our community and ecosystems.
And, wouldn’t it be fun to be the first carbon-negative community? If this interests you, please get in touch.
Gina McCoy, P.E., is an engineer and hydrologist living in Winthrop. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.