In early June, I attended a community field tour of the nearly year-old Pole Creek Fire in the Deschutes National Forest outside the town of Sisters in central Oregon.
Lightning caused this fire, which erupted Sept. 8, 2012, and burned about 26,000 acres, or about 40 square miles. According to The Bulletin newspaper, “the fire destroyed four cars at the trailhead, a popular gateway to the Three Sisters Wilderness, prompted about 30 hikers and campers to find a different route out of the forest. Later, it walloped Sisters with waves of morning smoke deemed hazardous to health. The fire cost about $18 million to fight.”
Organizers held two five-hour tours, one on a Friday, and the other on a Saturday. About 50 people attended each day, cramming a bright yellow school bus.
Before we boarded, the leaders asked us to choose five words that describe the impact of forest fire on us as individuals. Most of the people were from central Oregon. Most used words like “smoke,” “air quality” and “health issues” to describe the fire’s impact.
During the tour, we learned about fire ecology and how a century of fire suppression has created dense forests that are over-stocked with an understory of small-diameter trees. In the past, periodic, low-intensity fires removed this understory, leaving the larger and more resilient trees – mainly ponderosa pine – to grow even larger. But with fire suppression and little harvest, the understory creates what is called a “fuel ladder” that allows fire to climb into the crowns of the larger trees, killing them.
Not all trees died. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that about 24 percent of the 26,119 fire acres were lightly to moderately burned and will recover. This occurred mainly where forest management thinning had already cleared much of the understory. About 36 percent of the acreage experienced mixed mortality. The remaining 40 percent, however, was destroyed – what foresters call “stand replacing.”
Some salvage is taking place. The Forest Service plans to remove trees that pose a danger to people and traffic along about 40 miles of forest roads. It also is planning to salvage log about 1,000 acres in an area that experienced stand-replacing fire. Per the Forest Service’s protocol, a number of large snags will be left on harvested sites for wildlife habitat.
At the conclusion of the tour, Pete Caligiuri, who works for The Nature Conservancy in Central Oregon, discussed the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project. Pete told the group that the collaborative is a community-based organization that is advising the Forest Service on restoration activity in the Deschutes National Forest. One goal of the project is to identify areas that are the most departed from historic conditions, then treat them before wildfire occurs through thinning, selective harvest and prescribed burning. This will create healthier, more fire-resilient forests
Pete and the collaborative hope that by restoring forest health and fire resiliency, they can prevent intense fires such as the Pole Creek Fire from occurring in the future.
For the Forest,
Photo: With the peaks of the Three Sisters and the Deschutes National Forest burned during the 2012 Pole Creek Fire as a backdrop, Dr. Steve Fitzgerald, OSU professor and area extension forester for the central Oregon region, provided an overview of east Cascades forest ecology, the role of fire and current forest conditions.
A recent report by Cisco estimates that within four years, 69 percent of all consumer internet traffic will be video content. Cisco also estimates that mobile data traffic will grow 300 percent faster than fixed IP, or “wired” traffic in the next five years.
These percentages keep increasing each year. OFRI heard similar but slightly lower numbers a couple of years ago, and we made the move to begin developing more video content and more mobile content. Here’s a look at what we’ve been up to.
Five new Forest Fact Breaks
OFRI’s popular series just added five new animations. For those unfamiliar with the series, these are 90-second movies intended to introduce forestry topics to a middle school audience in a way that is both informative and entertaining. New disks have been created and are being distributed to classrooms around the state. The five new Fact Breaks are:
Smartphone Tree Guide
As part of an interpretive project at The Oregon Garden, new tree identification signage has been developed with embedded QR codes that link to a unique website with more info. These QR codes can be reproduced and used anywhere, including your own forestland or interpretive signage.
Mobile list of 10 great hikes near Portland
OFRI has developed a visitor’s brochure about the amazing forests of Oregon. Inside is a QR link to 10 family-friendly hikes within a short drive of Portland.
Mobile app of Forest Facts and Figures
Have you seen the app yet? It’s free, it’s easy to use, and it includes everything from the popular printed pocket guide to video clips, interactive maps and county-specific economic data. Availalbe in iTunes and GooglePlay.
Video Special Report on Biomass
New to the OFRI video library is our report on biomass in Oregon’s forests. Powered by Oregon is the latest in OFRI’s series of video special reports.
One of the conundrums of restoring federal forest health and fire resiliency is what to do with the immense amount of woody biomass growing in our east-side forests. Present estimates project that as many as 6.4 million bone-dry tons of small-diameter trees too small to saw into lumber could be available annually for the next 20 years. That’s annually.
Nearly 6 million BDTs of biomass are already available annually from mill residuals – chips, shavings and sawdust left over from wood and plywood manufacturing. That market is well-established and little is wasted. Another 500,000 BDTs comes from logging slash recovered and used for energy production. About twice that much is left in the woods to be burned or to decay.
OFRI’s new special report and accompanying video, Powered by Oregon, take a hard look at how biomass is being used in the state for heat, electricity and fuel. Biomass utilization has come a long way, but as the figures above show, there’s still room for improvement.
One problem with biomass is the cost of removal and transport. But consider the consequences of not removing it: uncharacteristically intense wildfire is terribly damaging to ecosystems and the built environment, and fire suppression is equally expensive.
Gov. Kitzhaber spoke to the Board of Forestry in January and said this: “What is a better investment of public dollars? To spend billions of dollars fighting fires after they’ve started, or spending some resources reducing fuel loads and making those forests healthier in the first place?”
As the special report concludes, sometimes the costs and benefits of biomass utilization are more nuanced than we know. Perhaps it costs more to remove it, but what if we add in other benefits: healthier forests, Oregon jobs, cleaner air, reduced reliance on fossil fuel and greater energy independence? Can we put a price on those benefits?
These are the considerations our leaders and policymakers must weigh as they chart a course for Oregon’s energy future. Biomass is definitely on the map. And at the end of the day, how great would it be to say we are truly “Powered by Oregon.”
I joined the Oregon Forest Resources Institute in 2007, a few months after it completed a major study, Biomass Energy and Biofuels from Oregon’s Forests. This month, OFRI completed a new, up-to-date special report and video related to biomass usage around our state.
So what has changed in the past six years? Has the use of biomass – more specifically, woody biomass – entered a new era where it will solve the nation’s energy needs? Is it a bonanza – a new-wave energy for the future?
As our new special report notes: “Something old is new again.” As a fuel, there’s nothing new about biomass. Ask a caveman or a cavewoman, if only you could. It was a relatively simple, easy and reliable process for them to use wood for warmth and cooking. And so it was until the middle of the 19th century, when coal and other fossil fuels began to overtake the world’s wood-fueled economy.
So what has changed since 2006 when OFRI last wrote about biomass?
More than ever, sawmill owners have embraced the latest technology to use biomass in clean-burning boilers. Those boilers – using a locally sourced fuel – produce steam heat that dries lumber and reduces their bill for natural gas, a fossil fuel. Sized correctly for the available biomass resource, those boilers are also selling modest amounts of locally produced electricity to our utilities. That also reduces the need for fossil fuels.
And since 2006, especially on Oregon’s east side, local collaborative groups have begun finding ways to restore sickly, overly dense forests – thereby producing small diameter saw logs and biomass from tree tops and other spindly trees not suitable for milling. Some of it goes to boilers, but some of it also goes to produce pellets and biomass bricks that are heating schools, airports and other public buildings. Until recently, these buildings were wholly dependent on fossil fuels. And before the high-tech furnaces were installed, those fossil fuels needed to be trucked to rural areas at great expense.
Perhaps most tantalizing for the future of biomass is the potential for producing liquid fuels for powering cars, trucks and airplanes. It’s no longer a pie-in-the-sky concept. The sugars from breaking down woody biomass can be used to produce these fuels instead of using corn, which of course is food. Today it’s no longer a question of whether we can do this profitably; it’s a question of how profitably it can be accomplished relative to the cost of fossil fuels. Not a small problem, but one whose solution remains within reach.
So woody biomass today is no bonanza or cure-all, but its sustainable use has advanced considerably in six years. The stories of biomass projects all have a common thread: how they have offset the use of fossil fuels to accomplish things we all need – heat for industrial processes, electric generation from a renewable resource, and production of liquid fuels that can help transport people and the products and services we depend on here in our state.
But for me, what has changed the most since 2006 is how biomass utilization may help us again create healthier forests and a measure of economic recovery in rural Oregon.
Director of communications