Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Fire Un-Starter

Work is about to become a miasma of pain and degradation, and so it is important that I compile a decent-ish corpus of posts before I disappear back down the boring articles hole.

But first, an article that references the day job, sort of. I read with a little interest this article in the New York Times on the costs of dealing with wildfires in the Western United States.

The Times mostly treated the question "Who will pay?" as an extension of the question "Whose fault is it that there are more fires these days?" Thus, we're treated to a lively discussion of whether it is federal mismanagement of forest resources or breakneck development of communities near these resources that is to blame.

This is a slightly fruitful question. It looks at the changing expectations that the US public has of its public spaces, and looks at whether the venerable model of public ownership has a future, even in a country as large as the US. It also highlights the current administration's attitude to the Interior Department, which any casual observer of the Abramoff scandal will find illuminating.

But the article did not really look at the question of who CAN pay. This is an area where a few hardy souls are putting together some interesting proposals. The first of these is the growing use of biomass (a fancy name for dead plants, trees, and animal poo) to generate electricity.

Firms with contracts to clear, either pre-emptively or following a fire, forestry areas can use the wood gathered during these clearing expeditions to run power plants. The fuel is mostly free, or comes with a low cost, and mostly comes with transport costs attached. There are, to be fair, a number of other uses for such wood, especially in more developed areas, where it can be used for mulch and other uses, but few where it can be consumed broadly in situ.

I'd stress that for the moment it's unlikely to make a huge dent even in the forestry services industry in the Western United States, much less reduce our dependence on foreign oil or some such nonsense. Still, it deserves a wider hearing.


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