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Robert G. Ingram

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January 16, 2014
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Empire Mine project fuel reduction or just blowing smoke?

On Monday, Jan. 13, The Union’s staff reported a mastication project beginning under the heading “Empire Mine fuel reduction project begins.” Empire State Park, Sierra District Sector Supervisor Matt Green says, “We hope to reduce the fuel load and provide defensible space …” Yet, further in the article is the revelation that “The chipped material will be left on site.”

Masticating or chipping forest vegetation and leaving the battered material on the ground does not reduce the fuel load. Without burning or otherwise removing the material, you have not eliminated one ounce of burnable vegetation. In fact, the process chews up mostly live vegetation, turns it into dead vegetation and flings it on top of the excessive load of dead vegetation already on the ground.

How can anyone call this process fuel reduction? Plus, virtually every brush species and deciduous tree species (basically trees with leaves, not needles) in California sprouts vigorously after being cut or masticated. In most cases, in as little as three to five years, thicker, new vegetation replaces the masticated vegetation.

The re-established dense vertical growth known as ladder fuels now resides on top of even more dead ground fuel. How is that “reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire”?

Adding ground fuel increases fire’s ability to lift into and maintain itself in the crowns of trees.

Some proponents claim that masticated material decomposes quickly and is not a problem. Wrong!

Not in a fire-evolved ecosystem like the Sierra. Our summers are too hot and dry and our winters too wet and cold for rapid fungal decay. Our fire-evolved ecosystem always accumulates fuel; that’s why California burns. If forest vegetation decomposed faster than it accumulated, the Sierra wouldn’t burn — pretty basic fire physics here.

Mother Nature and Native Americans used repetitive fire to remove mostly ground fuels, thus dealing with the ever-increasing fuel load. It is ground fuel that dictates fire behavior. Manage the ground fuel and you can significantly manage fire behavior — again, simple fire physics. Without ground fuel to provide continual convective heat, fire cannot climb fuel ladders or sustain itself in the crowns of trees.

How do you stop a wildfire? Do you race out ahead of the fire and masticate or chip and spew chunks of flammable vegetation on top of flammable ground fuel? No! You cut dozer or hand lines down to bare mineral soil and light back fires ahead of the wildfire. Why? To eliminate the continuity of ground fuel and deny fire the ability to progress.

Some mastication enthusiasts state the masticated material becomes matted and cannot get enough oxygen to burn rapidly. True to a point but not during a catastrophic, wind-driven wildfire, and mastication is touted as a means to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. High winds over ground fuel act like billows to a blacksmith’s charcoal. High winds bring fresh oxygen constantly over fuel and whether your property has 5 or 10 tons per acre or 50 tons per acre of burnable fuel, a wind-driven fire has the ability to consume it all. (A note to landowners — stopping a wind-driven wildfire consuming 5 or 10 tons per acre is immeasurably more doable than trying to stop one cooking 50 tons per acre.)

So why do bureaucrats and politicians push mastication or chipping and leaving the material on site? It’s not cheap (but much cheaper and politically safer than actually addressing the problem and removing the fuel), it looks good to the uninformed (until a catastrophic wind-driven event proves otherwise), you don’t have to burn (can’t be inconvenienced with control burning and smoke in a fire evolved ecosystem), it doesn’t include logging (too risky to even advocate thinning our overstocked forests), it looks like it works (how many government programs throw our money away under the good intentions banner without any actual results) and it makes uninformed constituents feel like the government is doing something (they are, wasting our money once again).

When I showed one of our county supervisors a failed county-funded roadside fuel reduction project (in actuality, a fuel accumulation project) all he kept saying was, “But, it’s better than doing nothing, right?” Wrong!

The longer we avoid reducing the fuel load, especially ground fuels, the more severe the inevitable fire will be, and it will come. Regardless of the blustery deception, until fuel reduction actually includes fuel reduction, it’s all just blowing smoke.

Robert G. Ingram, a registered professional forester, lives in Grass Valley.


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The Union Updated Jan 16, 2014 10:10PM Published Jan 18, 2014 01:05AM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.