The Biochar Factor

Wildfire: Why Risk It?

OK, so, I am an irregular blogger.  Sorry, everybody.  Life in BiocharLand is busy and I don’t always make time for blogging.  But I can get better, and I’ll do it, just for you.

In the meantime, here’s an editorial piece I wrote with a little help from my friends.  Please feel free to pass it on. There is no need for forest management to be such a headache.  Let’s just emulate Mama Nature and recoup the costs of the effort in the process.  Let’s…..just…..biochar!

If you’re one of the 140 million people that live in the Wildland-Urban Interface, that ever-beautiful, ever-convenient region nestled in between the lushness of the forest and the culture of the city, you might be quaking like an aspen about the news of the Los Angeles fires.  According to a report from Wildland Fire Programs for the International Code Council based in Washington, DC, an average of 2400 homes are lost every year to forest fires.

“That home in the woods, with the peaceful chatter of pine squirrels, a babbling brook and the occasional deer feeding in the flowerbed has become a dream for many,” says the report from Dan Bailey, the program’s director. “But protecting this dream has become a horrific financial nightmare for the government agencies charged with fire protection in these areas.”  2006 was the worst fire year on record.  Over 89,000 fires burned over 9.5 million acres, destroying 2,256 structures and claiming the lives of 24 wildland firefighters.  That year, wildland firefighting cost the government $2 billion dollars.

Smoky the Bear has no idea how much he had to do with this.  Fires are a natural part of a forest’s way of self-management.  The decades of suppressing forest fires at the demand of Smoky the Bear caused forests to become overloaded with small trees vying for precious sunlight.  Small trees (“slash”) are kindling to a forest fire, and now, our forests are overloaded with them.

The United States Forest Service has allotted $297M to preventative measures, aka “hazardous fuels reduction,” in 2009, with a goal of treating 1.5M acres.  However, there are a total of 600 Million acres of high-risk acreage in the Wildland-Urban Interface, known as the WUI to forestry folks.  40% of all homes and close to 140 million people are located in this fringe, where the undeveloped and developed lands meet.

The two most common methods for reducing fuel loads are mechanical removal and controlled burns.  However, the former is expensive and intensive, requiring biomass transport to a central processing plant; and the latter is not appropriate for WUI areas, where air quality standards prevent it.

What government agencies have so far failed to recognize and utilize, are several other technologies that can not only reduce the fuel load, but add environmental and economic benefits, as well.

Allow me to introduce to you:  pyrolysis.  Think of pyrolysis like a forest fire in a can.  When a forest fire burns, there are oxygen-reduced pockets that smother and smolder the wood, so that it does not combust all the way to ash, but into charcoal instead.  This carbon-rich natural charcoal provides water retention, soil structure, and nutrient holding benefits to the new life that will grow.  Pyrolysis is controlled, clean-emission, partial combustion in an oxygen-deprived environment (like the barrel in the picture below). The most common use of this technology is for internal incineration which can reduce everything from woody biomass to garbage into nothing but tiny handful of ash quickly and cleanly. Currently used for remote areas, it also can produce power, an oil or a char as by-products.  In  some pyrolysis, the charcoal that comes out is referred to as “biochar”, a carbon-negative soil amendment.  Since it is one of the only technologies available that actually removes carbon from the global carbon cycle, biochar has been referred to as one of the solutions that just might save the world.

It’s still early days for biochar, but there are several companies making this technology, with a few of them focusing specifically on mobile systems that can be taken to staging areas in forests to reduce hazardous fuel load.  Phil Badger, of Renewable Oil International, LLC, recently conducted demonstrations of his pyrolysis systems for forest management agencies in Oregon making both bio-oil and biochar.  Waste Conversion Systems has semi mobile units that can internally convert almost any biomass into less than 1 percent ash. And Biochar Systems LLC, whose system is pictured below,  converts woody biomass into valuable biochar. These mobile systems can be loaded onto a trailer, and with the aid of a chipper, a bucket loader, and a few forest laborers, could be the answer to protecting Wildland-Urban community dwellers.

With wild fires costing millions of dollars, risking thousands of lives and destroying thousands of acres of habitat, it would seem that every politician and decision maker responsible should be seeking climate friendly, safe mitigation technology to prevent the risk of fires.

Biochar 1000, mobile biochar technology for forest management.

Biochar 1000, mobile biochar technology for forest management.


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

That’s a Great explanation of an Amazing idea!

Comment by Ryan

can your mobial unit biochar manure .and can I buy a unit from you .

Comment by fred wernicke

Please contact me – I want to develop similar for Australian National Parks and bushland.

Comment by Allan Niass

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