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Today’s mailbox: Biomass, fire

Letters to the editor published Jan. 24

Time to think about firesmarting

Thanks to Keith Halliday for his column about Yukon risks for 2020.

As Keith mentioned, there are a number of risks that we face in the Yukon, including asteroid impacts, extreme cold, highway washouts, power failures and cyber attacks. All are possible, but the threat of a catastrophic forest fire may be the most likely, since most of us live surrounded by mature boreal forest.

Even Old Crow is in the midst of a spruce forest that has burned in the recent past, creating dangerous levels of smoke. Telegraph Creek was destroyed by fire two years ago.

It’s January and we are watching Australia burn. That’s a good reason to start preparing for our summer.

If you live within 100 meters of a greenbelt you should be looking at your own backyard and asking yourself what will happen when embers are raining down.

Keith is worried about cedar shakes but I’d like to add the following things to worry about: firewood piles, dead leaves, piles of spruce and pine cones, dry shrubs and grasses, old lumber, and so on.

All of those hazards can be reduced by the homeowner and should be done by the end of April. There will be no point spraying your cedar shakes with the garden hose if all other flammable items have not been removed or managed.

As you clean up your backyard, if you notice a ‘logging’ operation in the surrounding greenbelt, try to be appreciative and supportive. That initiative may save your house and much of the neighbourhood during the next hot, dry spell.

Keith mentioned that many of us may have only five minutes worth of gas in the car.

Even a half tank may not help your exit from Whitehorse. Keeping a full tank of gas during extreme fire weather periods is your first line of defense when planning your evacuation.

We may not know what the government plan is for a community evacuation, but we do have control over our gas tank. If the weather is hot and dry, we should be paying attention to the fire hazard and keeping a full tank of gas.

The best plan is to know what you will do during hot, dry weather and how you will react when a fire happens. We should all have an escape plan and 72 hours worth of supplies.

We shouldn’t wait for a government plan. Even if there is a plan, it may not work. Paradise, California had a plan but it was not activated, due to poor communication. Australia didn’t have a plan because the government is in denial.

Go ahead, hope and pray that a fire won’t happen, if that makes you feel prepared. Otherwise, it might be a good idea to use time in January, February and March to plan for a fire.

We don’t know when a catastrophic fire will happen but there is a lot that we can do every year to be better prepared.

Mike Gladish

Member of Citizens for a Firesmart Whitehorse

We standby our opinions on biomass

On Jan. 17 Yukon News published letters from Yukon Wood Products Association and TransNorthern Consulting critiquing our commentary of Jan 10 in which we made three points: biomass energy (burning wood) is a net contributor of carbon to the atmosphere annually (so is not carbon neutral); those carbon emissions need to be part of Yukon’s annual carbon reporting; although burning wood is well established in Yukon, future increases in the biomass sector will worsen our carbon footprint.

We know the authors of the letters, respect their experience in the forest industry, and thank them for their interest in this topic.

They provide two major arguments in favour of burning wood. First, they assert that biomass energy is carbon neutral. Their argument is based on the fact that tree growth will absorb similar volumes of carbon as are emitted by burning, when the full life-time of the tree is considered.

Although that is true, the full life-time of the tree is not the appropriate time period for carbon accounting. As with carbon emissions from all other sources, carbon emissions from wood have to be accounted for annually. When trees are burned, large amounts of carbon are emitted but relatively small amounts are re-absorbed during the same year.

Consequently there is a net addition of carbon to the atmosphere annually. By definition this means that burning wood cannot be carbon neutral. There is a large body of science and policy analysis around the world making this point.

It is the long time period (often decades) required for trees to eventually re-absorb the carbon from burning that is incompatible with the urgency of the climate crisis. We have to reduce emissions annually to have any chance of meeting our national targets.

The core of the second argument is that some timber harvesting is needed to reduce fire risk, because the vicinities of many Yukon communities support mature forests that will likely burn with high risk to humans in coming decades. This is a valid argument, and we agree that fuel abatement is desirable.

This argument then goes another step by saying that the resulting wood and “wood waste” should be burned, often in boiler installations.

That point may be valid, given that Teslin and Whitehorse already have boilers, but depends on the economics of extraction and transport. Those boilers have an existing carbon footprint that will continue using one wood source or another, so wood from wild-fire fuel abatement is appropriate. However, some of that wood could go to other purposes (dimension lumber; chipped on site for nutrient cycling), so burning it does not necessarily follow from the need to cut it.

The argument about reducing fire risk does not actually speak to the question of how climate-friendly biomass is. Biomass is a net contributor to Yukon’s carbon footprint, so we stand by our point that increasing the scale and scope of this energy source in Yukon will not be climate-friendly.

Donald Reid and Hilary Cooke

Wildlife Conservation Society Canada