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A Little Known Fact About Forest Fires and CO2

Wildfire season is ablaze in the United States with fires raging from Arizona to Texas to Florida. The US Forest Service has again marshaled its resources to battle the annual outbreaks.

A lot is discussed about the devastation these fires have on property and wildlife, but little is often shared about the impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is a bit surprising since, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of California, large wildfires in the western United States can release as much carbon dioxide in a few weeks as all of the cars do in those same areas during an entire year.

All the cars? Ok, you have my attention.

NCAR puts some data behind that statement, estimating that fires in the contiguous United States and Alaska release about 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year or 4 to 6 percent of the amount of the greenhouse gas that the nation releases through burning fossil fuels. In summary, forest fires can quickly release large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere with only small amounts offset by regrowing vegetation in the period following the fire.

The environmental and economic impact of wildfires is not new to the US Forest Service. They have put a lot of energy into understanding and mitigating the impact of these wildfires, however their hands are tied since policy dictates how fuel can be removed from public forest lands.

It would seem reasonable, given the economic, environmental and energy potential of our forest lands that more support should be given for removing and utilizing this hazardous material and creating valuable forest products – lumber, wood chips & biomass – before we let it burn. So what don’t I get?

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