Free firewood program warms hearths while fighting fire, climate change (Opinion)
One of the best things about winter in the Sierra is the scent of wood burning in stoves and fireplaces, warming hearth and home. That smell reminds us of feeling warm in our homes on a cold winter night and is highlighted during the events that bring family and friends together. This year, some of that firewood may have come from a program working to reduce wildfire risk in our region, mitigate climate change, and protect the water resources that sustain native trout.
The June Mountain Fuels Reduction project, run by nonprofit research and conservation organization California Trout, is a multi-year fire suppression project to clear excessive dead trees and underbrush from a forest at high risk of wildfire. While the project is largely invisible to most of us, it demonstrates one of the most effective tactics we can deploy to protect forest and watershed health, as well as human life and property.
After a century of well-meaning fire suppression, Sierra Nevada forests have become unnaturally overloaded with dead wood and too-densely packed trees, primed to burn hot. Under the natural fire regime of the past, our region saw frequent fires. But those fires, like a campfire with dry kindling but wet logs, would mostly burn through the underbrush, clearing the forest floor and leaving mature trees. But over the last few decades, we’ve added drought and hotter temperatures from climate change to the long practice of fire suppression. This combination has created the conditions for fires that are too intense, burning mature trees and everything else in their way while putting neighboring communities at risk.
The drought and subsequent mountain pine beetle infestation in some parts of our mountains have also caused a massive die-off of our keystone tree species, the whitebark pine. For the June Mountain project, CalTrout and partners Inyo National Forest and June Mountain Ski Area are working to remove those dead trees from more than 300 acres at the Ski Area. CalTrout is also collaborating with regional experts on modeling water and carbon benefits from these fuels reduction efforts in the Owens River Watershed, while completing a feasibility study to identify the most cost effective and environmentally friendly ways to move the dead wood and brush off the mountain, and potentially convert to renewable energy for the Sierra Nevada.
To date, the June Mountain project has removed 2000 tons of biomass (trees and brush), equivalent in size to two cargo ships or 13 adult whales. As a service to the community, some of the wood is being given away as free firewood to local residents.
We all know how bad fire season has gotten in California. Eight of the 10 largest wildfires on record in the state occurred in the last five years. The 2020 fire season alone burned 4.2 million acres, killed dozens of people, and destroyed thousands of homes. There are thousands of lives and billions of dollars at stake, between firefighting costs and the loss of homes, property, livelihoods and lives.
Then there is the cost in human, forest and watershed health. In the aftermath of a wildfire, ash and sediment wash into streams, contaminating our water supply and threatening aquatic species such as native rainbow trout. In contrast, healthy, intact forests support a vast web of biodiversity, filter our drinking water, and play a critically important role in mitigating climate change by absorbing and storing carbon from the atmosphere.
In the face of the increasing threats from wildfire and climate change, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach. The fuels reduction projects CalTrout and partners are conducting, on June Mountain and elsewhere in the Sierras, are proving to be successful. Other regions around California may want to build on the lessons learned from this project.
So, as we wind down this holiday season and head into the heart of winter – complete with the scent of wood burning in the air – remember that dialing up fuels reduction work across California could provide free firewood to many households that rely on wood for heat in the winter, while creating jobs and reducing the risks from wildfire to life, property, fish and wildlife habitat, and our climate.
Sandra Jacobson, Ph.D., is Director of California Trout’s Sierra Headwaters and South Coast Regions.
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