Sunday, November 23, 2008

We can reverse wildland fires' vicious circle (California): California's 2008 wildfires cost hundreds of millions - maybe even billions - of taxpayer dollars to fight, claimed more than a dozen firefighters' lives, destroyed hundreds of homes, blanketed much of Northern California with a toxic cloud of smoke, and left our scenic hillsides blackened and dozer-scarred.

…The past decade has brought one record-breaking fire season after another in the state, and a warming climate is likely to make the situation worse. Higher temperatures and earlier snowmelts mean longer, drier fire seasons … In a vicious circle, wildfires themselves pump enormous loads of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

But that cycle can be reversed. We can reduce the size and severity of fires. And as California - soon to be joined by the incoming Democratic presidential administration - musters to fight global warming, our forests, properly managed, can be a vital weapon.

If we thin unnaturally overgrown forests, we can systematically reduce the risk of catastrophic, stand-replacing blazes.

….That would have a direct benefit for neighbors' lungs in the short run and the climate in the long run. Thriving trees are one of the few tools we have to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. If they go up in smoke, they do little good. On the other hand, if we efficiently burn the wood waste from thinning in a biomass power plant … we've turned a potential pollutant into a source of renewable power that can replace fossil fuels.

…Such a drive would not only turn a hazard into an asset, but also reduce the astonishing cost of fighting wildfires in California. Even if the work couldn't pay for itself through timber and electricity - and it probably could - sensible prevention of predictable disasters must be a money-saver in the long run.

Mount Shasta above Castle Lake, California, shot by Vlad Butsky from San Jose, CA, USA, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

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