The key to preventing forest-destroying wildfires now rests on reducing overgrown “flash” or the fuel loads sitting on the forest floors.

A century a fire-suppression has left millions of tons of brush and small trees crowding every acre of the forest. Conventional logging operations can’t solve the problem, since they traditional leave behind mounds of plant waste, wood chips, small treetops and stems.

But now that one-time waste has a use — wood pellets to burn in heaters, stoves and fireplaces.

Forest Energy Corporation has operated a 28-acre plant in Show Low since 1991, blazing a trail in the production of wood pellets home heating.

Gary Moore, operations manager at Forest Energy, said, “Biomass is basically material that is in the forest that more or less doesn’t have enough value to justify removing it to use for lumber — or to use in its current form. However, we can take the stem or stump of the tree, (which is called whitewood), along with the other parts of the tree left behind after logging. We grind it up and use it to make the wood pellets.”

Forest Energy manager Curtis Rogers explained the process of creating wood pellets:

Logs piled at a wood pellet plant

1) Forest biomass or “thinnings” come into the plant by truck in logs or chip form all made from tress less than 12 inches in diameter.

2) Hammer mills reduce the wood chips to “sawdust size.”

3) A huge spinning machine dries out eight tons of sawdust per hour.

4) The excess pellet “fines” are then burned off the product.

5) That material is then fed into one of three pellet presses.

6) The pressed pellets are cooled and packaged into wood pellets and pet bedding sold at local Home Depot, Lowe’s and Ace Hardware.

“A good part of the biomass material we use comes from U.S. Forest and tribal lands, although we also obtain some material from sawmills in the area,” said Moore. “The majority of our product goes into domestic heating for homes. We heat about 25,000 homes in the Southwest,” says Moore.

The wood pellets use material from forest restoration projects normal sawmills can’t handle.

“The sawmill will want trees that are 12 to 16 inches in diameter for making lumber. But what we want is the treetops and trimmings. We take those smaller treetops and grind them up to make our product,” explained Moore.

The tree stem, the piles and the flash end up helping to pay for the project rather than posing an additional cost.

Moore said, “There is quite a bit of biomass or ‘flash’ generated by all the different timber contracts. That’s what is often being burned off during controlled burns conducted by the Forest Service. This material sitting on the forest floor adds up and contributes to the fuel load that increases fire danger.”

He added, “We saw how effective the thinning was for Vernon when the San Juan Fire came through. The areas that were thinned by removing the excess biomass were much easier to protect. The San Juan Fire dropped to the ground when it came through. That made it much easier for the firefighters to get to it and to fight it.”

Additionally, Moore explained, “There is a lot more biomass out there and so much more that we can use. It’s a challenge to get industry to pay to do that. Novo BioPower, Novo Star Wood Products, the sawmills that are here and were here are an important part of this equation. Our plant is just one example of how we can keep our forest healthier.”

Spark by Pia Wyer

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