Chief’s Corner: Biomass facilities a viable solution for green waste disposal |

Chief’s Corner: Biomass facilities a viable solution for green waste disposal

Jason Gibeaut / Fire Chief
Resources Rummer B., “Assessing the cost of fuel reduction treatments: A critical review”, Forest Policy Econ. 2008. 10:355-62. DOI: 10.1016/j.forpol.2008.01.001 Anderson, Nathaniel, Thompson, Matthew, “Modeling fuel treatment impacts on fire suppression cost savings: A review”, University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources, 1 July 2015,, Accessed 11 April 2023. Burke, Marshall, Heft-Neal, Wara, Michael, “Managing the Growing Cost of Wildfire Stanford”, Institute for Economic Policy Research, October 2020,, Accessed 11 April 2023. “Mitigating Wildfire Risk Out West”, American Forest Foundation, 14 October 2021,, Accessed 11 April 2023. “Organic Materials Management and Climate Change”, CalRecycle,, Accessed 11 April 2023.

Many of the local fire districts are making great strides implementing forest fuels treatments to restore our forestland to one that is healthy and resilient. From a firefighting standpoint, a healthier forest will allow for a reduction and/or slowing of wildland fires. However, as we continue to pursue forest fuels treatments – especially when it comes to manual and mechanized thinning of our forest – we must contend with the biproduct of green waste.

Precisely, we must find solutions to dispose of the woody biomass generated from thinning that keep abatement costs in check while also minimizing impacts to the environment. Biomass utilization facilities are a viable solution that can help meet such demands and effects of green waste disposal.

The Northstar Community Services District is pursuing the implementation of a biomass facility – specifically, a wood energy facility to power a district heating system for the Northstar Village. We are not alone in this pursuit of a biomass facility. There are other districts, cities and counties that are planning similar initiatives. As the Northstar Fire Department’s Fire Chief, I am strongly in support of these efforts by my District as well as others.

First, we believe our wood energy facility will help to reduce the costs of disposing of green waste generated by our community’s forest fuels reduction and defensible space activities. Manual and or mechanized thinning of the forest in the Lake Tahoe Basin and Truckee is costly for all stakeholders. Steep terrain and limited access over low standard roads within a dense forest makes the falling of trees and clearing of ground vegetation expensive.

Furthermore, after such work is complete, there is the challenging task of hauling and disposing of the green waste. Due to long transportation distances, expensive labor and fuel, high transaction costs and the lack of accepting mills or green waste facilities – the cost of green waste disposal is expensive. In fact, disposal of green waste at the Cabin Creek MRF now costs more per cubic yard than garbage.

As a result, the average cost of fuels treatments has increased from $1,500 to $4,500 per acre (“Mitigating Wildfire Risk Out West”). We expect our biomass facility to help reduce the aforementioned transportation and transaction costs with biomass disposal ultimately allowing for more pace and scale of future treatment projects.

Additionally, we plan on using this wood energy facility to produce heat (not electricity) that will supply the Northstar Village and adjacent recreation centers with an alternative and renewable fuel source to natural gas. In turn, revenue generated from this program will help to further offset the costs of forest fuels management.

Secondly, we believe our wood energy facility will help lower existing impacts to the environment. Currently, when faced with what to do with the green waste that is generated, one of the more frequently chosen options is to have the material taken to a landfill.

However, research has found that the anaerobic decomposition of organic materials in landfills produces methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas with global warming potential approximately 85 times higher than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year time period. Landfills emit the majority of man-made methane emissions in California and are one of the top emitters in the United States (“Organic Materials Management and Climate Change”). Reducing the amount of organic materials sent to landfills makes good climate sense.

As another means of disposing of green waste, we also burn it in piles within the forest. In many cases burn piles are necessary. However, in doing so, we increase the risk of wildfire by burning this green waste in the vicinity of our community.

Furthermore, burn piles emit smoke into the atmosphere that can be obnoxious and affect air quality. Studies have shown smoke from wildfires is worsening the air quality across much of our country. Research estimates depict that 15 years ago, wildfires were responsible for roughly 5 to 10% of total PM2.5 (tiny particles that measure two and one-half microns or less in diameter).

Today it is estimated that wildfires produce 25% of PM2.5 across the U.S. and at times, more than 50% throughout much of the West. Increases in wildfire intensity is indeed a primary driver of worsening air quality throughout much of the country. Biomass facility projects are required to comply with a rigorous California Environmental Quality Act and air pollution control district permitting process ensuring that impacts from the incineration of biomass will be less than significant. Thus, if we can reduce the amount of smoke and wildfire risk caused by open pile burning – with a treatment we can control – the better off we are as a community.

There are approximately 23 operating solid fuel biomass power plants located in California. Currently, most of our region’s green waste needs to be trucked almost 100 miles away to the closest facility. With the prospect of trying to deal with nearly 100,000 bone dry tones of green waste per year (equating to millions of dollars in local disposal fees), finding local, sustainable alternatives for disposal is imperative for all of us. Biomass facilities offer a cost-effective and efficient alternative while also helping to reduce the negative impacts to our environment.

We Fire Chiefs know that to give our personnel a fighting chance to defend against the destructive forces of a wildfire, we must be proactive in managing our forests by reducing the hazardous fuels. Despite the overwhelming amount of green waste produced, we must continue to be aggressive in such treatment(s) as the thinning of our surrounding forest is critical to protect our communities from the risks of wildfire. As such, I encourage our community members to be supportive in such efforts as we pursue both an economically and environmentally viable means to deal with the disposal of our forests’ green waste.

Jason Gibeault is fire chief for Northstar Fire.

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