By Gina McCoy
A recent issue of this newspaper contained a column describing the onset of an apocalyptic planetary fire age. Immediately next to it was a letter opposing the U.S. Forest Service’s actions to restore fire resilience to our forests. These competing viewpoints offer despair on one hand and denial on the other. The middle way is to act swiftly to reduce the risks of extreme mega-fire.
Make no mistake, the fires in California are a preview of what will happen here as the fire season becomes longer, hotter and drier. In late September, the remaining residents of Paradise, California, which was engulfed by the Camp Fire in 2018 — killing 85 people — were forced to flee the North Complex fire. At 320,000 acres — 15,000 acres larger than the Okanogan Complex fire — it is the fifth-largest of the fires that have consumed over 4 million acres in California this year. It has killed 15 people and damaged or destroyed 2,455 structures. How many more such events can these communities withstand? People are having to adapt to evacuating their homes every year. Damages from California wildfires have exceeded $10 billion in three of the last four years.
Closer to home, in the last six years Okanogan County has experienced the three largest wildfires in state history, each successively larger than the last. A recent Forest Service study revealed that seven of the 10 communities most at-risk from wildfire in the state are in Okanogan County, with three of those in the Methow Valley. Can anyone seriously doubt that our situation is urgent?
This is not a problem requiring scientific or engineering breakthroughs to address. We have the means to significantly reduce the risks to our communities and ecosystems. Climate change, a significant factor, is a global problem, but forest health — the other part of this equation — is a local one. A small fraction of the resources devoted to fighting fires, if directed to restoring the health and fire resilience of our overcrowded forests, would make a huge difference. Add to that a tiny fraction of the cost of wildfire damage, and the risk of destructive mega-fire could be greatly reduced.
With 84% of the Methow watershed on federal lands, the security of our community is at the mercy of the federal government’s landscape management. As noted in the column about a planetary fire age, “U.S. land agencies reformed policies to reinstate good fire 40 to 50 years ago” (coincidentally, about the time that scientists raised the alarm over climate change). Policies have long been in place, but meaningful actions have not. We should be demanding rapid, large-scale action from the federal government.
Fire ecologists, while promoting the restoration of historic, low-intensity ground fires to our dry forests, warn that we will have to tolerate more smoke from slash piles and prescribed burning. This is a significant obstacle to achieving the goal of reducing the risk of mega-fire, and understandably so. None of us want to breathe smoke, and many are at heightened risk of damage to our health. So, what to do?
Here is my suggestion: Remove the slash and low-value materials generated by forest health treatments and locally process it into biochar. By doing so, we can have the benefits of forest restoration — including reduced smoke from wildfires — without burning slash piles.
Biochar is simply charcoal made from biomass. Whether animal or vegetation, all biomass, after the water is removed, is about 50% carbon. Modern biochar processing techniques are clean and efficient, producing charcoal that is 80% to 90% stable carbon. This represents about half of the total carbon contained in the fuel material. So, instead of slash piles going up in smoke and greenhouse gases, biochar production offers the opportunity to eliminate the smoke and sequester half the carbon.
Here is the part that sounds too good to be true: Biochar has many uses, but as a soil amendment, particularly in poor, sandy soils, it can greatly improve soil productivity. A recent Oregon State University study of dryland wheat production showed up to 34% increase in yield due to the addition of biochar. Biochar is not a fertilizer; it becomes part of the soil, persisting for hundreds or thousands of years. It holds plant nutrients and water in the root zone and promotes soil ecosystem health. Added to compost or animal feed, it greatly reduces the production of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 86 times more potent than CO2.
Which leads to the potential of biochar to help stabilize the climate. The growth of plant matter is the primary process that removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Globally, forests cover less than one-third of the land area, but account for two-thirds of the CO2 taken up by terrestrial vegetation. Every acre of forest killed by wildfire reduces the planet’s ability to prevent climate collapse. Biochar is the perfect vehicle for moving excess carbon from our forests (carbon that otherwise returns to the atmosphere as CO2,) and sequestering it in the soil, where it provides tremendous benefits. Doing this will support forest health and fire resilience, reducing the risk of destructive megafire to our communities and ecosystems. It will provide good local jobs and benefit agriculture. And, we would no longer breathe the smoke from burning slash and yard waste while we are out and about, enjoying our beautiful valley.
Gina McCoy is a co-founder of C6 Forest to Farm, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting forest health restoration. She lives in Winthrop.