Biomass Industry Fans Flames of Wildfire Hysteria

Biomass Industry Fans Flames of Wildfire Hysteria 

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"115","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"270","style":"width: 388px; height: 260px; margin-left: 7px; margin-right: 7px; float: left;","width":"480"}}]]California’s Rim fire, expected to be fully “contained” by October after igniting in Yosemite National Park on August 17, will ultimately benefit the forests it has passed through. While media accounts sensationalize such large wildfires as “catastrophic” and “disastrous,” science demonstrates that, to the contrary, fire is a vital component of western forest ecosystems.

Journalists mischaracterize the ecological function of wildfire as “devastation” or refer to forests that have experienced fire as a “barren wasteland,” exploiting emotions to sell newspapers. Yet media is only an accomplice to one of the masterminds ultimately responsible for fanning the flames of wildfire hysteria: the biomass energy industry.

Ignoring sound science and common sense, the biomass industry insists that cutting more backcountry forests, including native forests, will somehow prevent wildfires and protect people.  

In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the siphoning of even more taxpayer dollars to log and burn forests for energy under the guise of “reduc[ing] the risks of catastrophic wildfires.” In this most recent taxpayer handout to the biomass industry, $1.1 million in grants will be diverted to encourage more biomass incineration in California, Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Alaska.

The biomass boosters’ well-worn talking points are laid out perfectly by Julia Levin, director of the Bioenergy Association of California, in a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle. Without citing a single scientific study, Levin boldly claims that hacking apart forests to burn for energy would “prevent more Rim Fires,” asserting that keeping chainsaws out a forest is the same thing as letting it go “up in smoke.”

George Wuerthner, ecologist and editor of Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy, explains that instead of stopping fires, logging “typically has little effect on the spread of wildfires.” Contrary to industry and media spin, large fires such as the Rim fire are a product of “high winds, high temperatures, low humidity and severe drought.” These bigger fires are “unstoppable and go out only when the weather changes — not because of a lack of fuels” in a logged forest. 

Wuerthner contends that logging or “thinning” can actually “increase wildfires’ spread and severity by increasing the fine fuels on the ground (slash) and by opening the forest to greater wind and solar penetration, drying fuels faster than in unlogged forests.”

Biomass proponent Levin warns in her op-ed that wildfires have “enormous impacts on public health from the smoke, soot and other emissions.” Yet Levin sees no disconnect in building biomass incinerators that would spew deadly particulate matter into low-income communities twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, at higher levels than most coal plants.

Wildfire can “threaten lives, homes and businesses,” Levin states truthfully, particularly as more forests in the fire plain are opened to development. Yet the industry mouthpiece doesn’t once mention the only action that can actually protect structures from wildfire: maintaining “defensible space” 100-200 feet around a building. Instead, she offers more backcountry logging as the solution.

Levin claims to fret about the impact on climate change from an occasional wildfire, while pushing hard for more biomass incinerators that would pump out more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than the some of the dirtiest coal plants in the country.

Recent science demonstrates that big blazes have been typical in western forests for hundreds of years. “If you go back even to the turn of the century, you will find that tens of millions of acres burned annually,” according to Wuerthner. “One researcher in California recently estimated that prior to 1850, an average of 5 million to 6 million acres burned annually in California alone.”

Yet biomass opportunists such as Levin cling to the outdated belief that “wildfires are increasing dramatically in frequency and severity as the result of climate change and overgrown forests.”

It would be unfair to suggest that Levin completely ignores forest ecology in her op-ed. She doesn’t. She just makes up her own version of it to suit industry’s desire to get out the cut, swearing that more intensive logging won’t harm forests, but magically “increase forest ecosystem health.”

That’s just dead wrong, according to ecologist Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir Project of Earth Island Institute in California. Hanson explains that burned forests “support levels of native biodiversity and total wildlife abundance” equal to or greater than any forest type, including old growth. Burned forests are also the rarest kind of forest, and therefore among the most ecologically important.

Black-backed woodpeckers drill their burrows in standing dead snags, according to Hanson, eventually providing homes for other cavity-nesting species of birds and mammals. Native flowering shrubs thriving in the wake of wildfire attract insects, which feeds species of birds and bats. Shrubs and downed logs provide habitat for small mammals, which become food for raptors like the California spotted owl and northern goshawk. Deer live off the tender new tree growth, bears gorge themselves on the resulting berries and grubs, and Pacific fisher hunt the rodents, while the decaying organic material rejuvenates soils for swiftly regenerating seedlings.

Levin and the biomass industry’s “cure” for our “sick” western forests includes a recent bill passed by the California legislature requiring the Public Utilities Commission to generate up to 50 megawatts of biomass power, which Levin says would be extracted from 300,000 acres of forests over a ten year period.

The director of the Bioenergy Association of California specifically advocates for the construction of the 2.2 megawatt Cabin Creek Biomass Energy Facility in Placer County, California. This proposed facility is currently under legal challenge from Center for Biological Diversity, the environmental organization alleging that the Environmental Impact Report “does not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.”