Fire Ecology Restoration Project

Fire Ecology Restoration Project

Woodland Fire Risk Mitigation and Ecosystem Restoration

FERP Grant Executive Summary

Western fire risk is massive and growing under climate pressures. Unless addressed differently, it may overwhelm fire-control resources within a few years. This project tests promising new technologies and methods in an area of extreme fire risk to establish costs, show efficacy, and set baseline research which can be promoted to public agencies and private landowners across a huge, transnational region. Viewing both fire and fuels as solutions not problems, we can reduce air pollution, sequester carbon, improve water-holding capacity and overall forest health, and integrate with existing programs for fire risk mitigation. Addressing big climate-related threats makes PINA’s overall program broadly relevant.

The Problem of Wildfire and How We are Addressing it

A century of fire-suppression in the West has left a vast overburden of combustible fuels, creating the conditions for climate-driven megafires of the type increasingly seen in recent years. Forest thinning reduces the likelihood of catastrophic crown fires. It also increases water supply to the remaining trees. Though backed by government programs, thinning work has historically been underfunded, while communities have looked askance at the added smoke burden of pile burning that often goes with it. But cataclysmic events of the past decade have increased in the public’s mind the urgency of addressing this ecological debt. The work we have already done, and propose to expand and document, combines fuel hazard reduction with biochar production and rehydration techniques on the treated areas. We believe the research from this project will show that we can achieve superior and long-lasting risk mitigation. 

Our thinning is similar to treatments already being done wherever funding is available, but instead of the conventional pile burning, which pollutes the atmosphere with this century-long backlog of carbon, we sequester much of the carbon and control pollution through advanced pyrolysis technology. We also use thinned stems to retain water runoff in order to achieve longer-term risk reduction. In this way, fire and the fuels which have been problems form the basis of a new, comprehensive solution. Creating this new ecological state enables a sustainable and low-cost maintenance regime of low-intensity burns to succeed indefinitely. The result, mimicking the outcome of indigenous practices, is a healthier forest ecosystem with greater yields and lowered risks of fire damage to surrounding communities.

This project aims to shift the paradigm of fire management from emergency combat to pro-active use. This would acknowledge the inescapable role of fire in Western woodlands yet allow people and their infrastructure to live safely with healthy forests. The specific aims are to increase agency awareness of and public enthusiasm for valuable improvements to the present regime of fire mitigation, and thus to speed adoption of these improved techniques. We will do this by documenting research into the efficacy and economic costs of our process, and by establishing a basis for long-term study of forest health under these protocols. We will also train a cadre of ecological service providers in these techniques with the expectation that funding for conservation, carbon sequestration, and climate and risk mitigation efforts will increase over the coming decade, which would open up new job opportunities on a large scale.

Southern and western Oregon, where we are working, is one of the most at-risk regions in the US from climate-aggravated wildfire. This project builds on local drought mitigation work PINA funded in 2019 — see www.pina.in or Integrated Water Harvesting on YouTube.  The implications of this project could ramify across hundreds of millions of acres of public and private woodlands in at least 12 US states, two Canadian provinces, and the northern tier of Mexico. It directly addresses a growing risk to hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure across more than a million square miles.

A study by local academic Ken Carloni shows that the biochar process we will use captures about 40% of the carbon released to the atmosphere by pile burning. Since fuels-reduction is recognized as necessary to limit fire risk, the production of biochar from the resulting slash creates both a beneficial product and a potential claim for carbon sequestration credits. 

Biocchar would be made from small fuels most likely to burn in a fire, including branches and logs up to 4” diameter. Larger logs from thinning are laid on contour to slow surface runoff, creating mini-swales which trap eroding organic matter behind them. Larger logs can be placed on contour or incorporated in access trails, with full soil contact capturing rain run-off, preventing erosion and reducing the chance of ignition. Distribution of biochar in the forest increases soil fertility and water-holding capacity. Targeted pyrolysis mimics the beneficial result of low-intensity indigenous burning; the entire process may even improve upon it because of the runoff control.

Biochar production is the cutting edge of forest management in fire-dominated ecologies, with many experiments underway at different scales. Production in the forest puts this technology in the hands of smaller landowners, and could also be done by timber companies on larger tracts, saving the generally prohibitive cost of transporting biomass to industrial facilities. On-site production is generally combined with distribution of the char back into the woodland soils, where it enhances forest health.

Recently, the benefits of biochar treatment have been recognized by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and the first few projects have been funded in southern Oregon at the rate of $5,500/acre. Using this as a key, we propose to treat acreage based on the amount of funding available. The supply of acreage is unlimited. PINA’s chosen managers can recruit and supervise teams to do the work, partner with local academics and students to gather data and document the projects, and can track operations and report the findings. We also believe we can facilitate the distribution of this new knowledge.

Other area nonprofits to which we are connected, Fire Ecology Network (FEN) and FUSEE (Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology), are producing promotional materials about biochar in Western forests using the methods described here. Further funding would allow them to make more complete training materials covering kiln construction, water handling, fire safety gear, and on-farm uses of the resulting biochar, as well as the burn technique itself.

As public gatherings become safer, we can deploy available per-acre funding to hold Ecosystem Restoration Camps (ERC). These would train more people, and perform some of the work with volunteers, as the Community Woodlands ERC (CWERC) started to do in 2020. ERC’s international organization has given us preliminary approval for these camps.

We will also lay the groundwork for longitudinal studies into the effects of spreading biochar on the forest floor. Partnering with local academics to design the study and track the data, these longitudinal studies would exceed the time frame envisioned by the grant, but we can encourage their design and organization. Both the training protocol and the research projects could be incorporated into the PINA diploma program in Regenerative Land Management.

 

Join Us

We have paid work, internships and volunteer opportunities. Check out our Job Description and application.

 Webinar with Ken Carloni, Integrating Biochar into your Forest Stewardship Practices,
Live Sept. 15, 2021, 7 pm Pacific time

Live biochar workshop in Colorado this winter.  Dates coming soon.

More Information on the use of Biochar in Restoration Forestry

Increasing Resilience & Carbon storage through In-forest biochar production

Deborah Dumroese, Research Soil Scientist, Forest Service

Numerous articles, online trainings, and state of the art kilns at Wilson Biochar.com

Fire Ecology Restoration Project 

PINA has received a $75,000 grant to research improved methods of wildfire risk mitigation in relation to forest health. Our restoration forestry practices will be used to treat four sites in southwest Oregon while training a cadre of practitioners and documenting impacts. Forest thinning to reduce fuel loads will be followed by making biochar in portable kilns, contour placement of larger logs, return of the char to the forest, and finally prescribed burning.

After a century of public policy to suppress fire, western forests hold an immense overburden of flammable fuels that industry and government officials increasingly acknowledge must be reduced. Due to climate change, southern Oregon is one of the most vulnerable regions of the continent to increased wildfire risk. These fire-adapted ecosystems were traditionally managed by indigenous peoples through regular low-intensity burns, which reset favorable conditions for harvestable plants and prey animals. To restore the adaptive use of fire to limit danger and enhance forest health, we must embrace a period of transition during which hundreds of millions of acres must be rid of their excess fuel burden. 

Project Impact

Making biochar in the forest offers the possibility of capturing from 25-40% of the carbon presently released to the atmosphere by the standard thin-and-pile-burn methods promoted and subsidized by NRCS and state forestry departments. Laying logs on contour and creating ephemeral check dams will retain runoff and sediment, increasing moisture levels in soil and plants, and improving water quality in drainages. Returning biochar to the forest will increase water retention and improve fertility in the forest. Prescribed burning will remove the rest of ground level fuels, create char in place with associated benefits, encourage fire adapted germination and open up the forest for animals. 

During the first year, the Fire Ecology Restoration Project will recruit personnel, begin research, train an initial group of forestry workers, and begin site treatments. In the second year, our initial cadre of trainees will serve as crew leaders for volunteers from local schools, community organizations, eco-tourists, and interns, disseminating technical expertise, building public acceptance and researching the cost benefit of working with volunteer groups. By Year Three, we will be demonstrating the effectiveness of controlled burns on acres treated by our enhanced protocol. These sites can then remain in a regular fire management regime.

Research will be guided by academic advisors, promoted to NRCS, local forestry officials, and private groups, and will be designed to gather as large a data set as funding permits to show the carbon sequestering, smoke-reducing, soil-building, and employment benefits of these improved methods. We will develop training materials and programs for forestry workers, assay the costs and labor requirements, document the techniques and results in published papers and films, and will work to disseminate our findings to all sectors of western land-use management.

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