My Turn: Wildland fire prevention and community safety
October 27, 2008
The fire season in the Sierra will be coming to a close soon. The mountains have received the first rains and snow for the season, and while fires are still burning and we are still at risk for large fires, we can breathe a little easier in mountains now.
Placer County, however, suffered another harsh fire season. During the 2008 fire season over 25,000 acres in Placer County burned catastrophically, homes were destroyed and most importantly two firefighters suffered life changing injuries. Times are tough but there are also positive stories to tell.
First and foremost, thank you to all of the citizens of Placer County who did their defensible space treatments! This season defensible space did, in fact, protect lives and property, and firefighters were able to anchor in communities that had completed fuels reduction treatments. The North Tahoe Fire Protection District had to hire a second chipper crew this season to chip the waste from defensible space treatments and Placer County responded to huge piles of slash from defensible space treatments in Foresthill.
Defensible space is so important; it protects your home, your community and saves firefighters lives. There is absolute consistency in the message that homeowners are receiving now. If a person calls the Sierra Club or CalFire the message is the same; do your defensible space.
I am equally encouraged that more communities have created and begun implementing Community Wildfire Protection Plans. These plans include steps to encourage ignition resistant construction, defensible space and call for the creation of reduced fuel zones around communities. Many communities have received grants to implement projects that retain the large healthy trees and thin the understory that contributes to catastrophic wildfire. These treatments do reduce fire behavior even under extreme conditions and restore the forest to a more natural density. It is also true that because the large fire resistant trees are retained, the treatments are very expensive.
To this end Placer County and particularly Bruce Kranz has taken a leadership role in biomass utilization. Bruce has been able to obtain a $1.5 million dollar grant and even more private financing for the construction of a cogeneration facility in the Tahoe Basin. Bruce has also had initial talks with a group of investors who would like to construct a wood pellet mill to utilize the small wood and biomass from fuels reduction efforts and contribute money back to the projects. These new industries can exploit the existing markets for electricity and wood pellets and only the infrastructure needs to be built. Biomass is heavy, bulky and has very little value per pound; in fact a bone dry ton of wood chip is only worth about $40. But wood pellets for heating and electricity production from biomass can provide funding for fuels projects that now solely rely on grant funding.