As I made my way up to a worksite in the Uintah Mountains last week I saw this in the distance. It almost certainly was a controlled fire, probably a set of gathered slash piles, set ablaze during the cooler, wetter autumn weather we’ve experienced in Utah recently.
Slash piles can be sizeable, maybe containing one or two tons of wood each. On a slash pile burn there can be tens or hundreds of piles dotted across a few acres, each to be burned in a controlled fire. Professional fire wranglers usually manage them to make sure the fires don’t spread and grow into wildfires. As our climate changes and forests become hotter and dryer, there are fewer and fewer safe days each year for controlled burns.
While controlled burns are a boon for reducing the risk of uncontrolled wildfire, they are undeniably catastrophic to the environment. In addition to the immediate release and atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases, wood burning releases particulate matter, which has been shown to promote respiratory diseases among the young, among the old, and among the poor.
Assuming the burn I witnessed consumed one hundred slash piles at two tons of wood per pile on a few acres: A controlled burn immediately pumps about 360 tons of CO2 into the air. That’s equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of about 25 Americans. Now repeat that across tens of thousands of acres burned each year, and anyone can see this adds up to real damage.
You might say that wood burning is valuable and important, and that it is a natural process. You would be correct, but bad things like anthrax also occur in nature. Just because it is natural does not mean it should be actively pursued, especially because humans have built up more airborne CO2 today than anytime since the Pliocene era. Rather, humans should focus on burning only when necessary, or sparingly.
Woodcache PBC proposes an alternative to controlled burns, called Wood Harvesting and Storage (WHS). We remove dead wood from forests and bury it, locking the carbon in the cellular structure of the wood. This not only keeps carbon dioxide out of the air, but also reduces the need for controlled burning.
An alternative to controlled burning is staring us in the face. Let’s consider it.