By Lindsay R. Mohlere
Don’t look now, but government actually works. Despite the horrid bickering on both sides of the aisle and all the other issues, a rare bipartisan bill was signed into law by President Trump on March 20.
Sponsored in part by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Wildfire Technology Advancement Act includes several new mandates for crews fighting wildfires.
“It will provide new technology and training tools to empower the Forest Service to help our communities and our firefighters... Real-time fire mapping, more drone technology to give us real-time information about the fires, using NASA satellite information to help us plan post-fires, and giving us more smoke forecasting information to better help our communities and deal with those who are impacted by heavy smoke,” Cantwell said.
According to Bill Gabbert, a former firefighter and now editor of the website Wildfire Today, the new law is “The Holy Grail” of wildland firefighting. “It will make it possible for firefighters to know where the fire is in real time and where the firefighters are in real time.”
It will now be a requirement to provide wildfire crews with GPS locators and drones equipped with infrared sensors to scout and map wildfires in real time. In addition to requiring the Forest Service to update wildfire support software that fire managers use to inform and document their decisions while managing a wildfire, the bill also calls for the development of an injury database to track on-the-job injuries and deaths of wildland firefighters.
Unfortunately, the law doesn’t fund the acquisition of the drone and GPS tracking technology. That hurdle is being left up to the individual agencies.
For several years, Gabbert has been one of the leading voices in calling for the use of technology to increase the safety of wildland firefighters. He is happy the new law has been passed, but somewhat skeptical that it will be implemented. Seems fire managers have their own way of doing things.
“It takes a lot of knowledge and expertise and experience to manage forests and to manage forest fires and manage fifteen thousand fire fighters, and they believe that they know how to do it better than anybody; and when senator so and so from the Old Town Junction Township says they must fight fires this way with this kind of equipment . . . they may not always take it too seriously,” Gabbert said.
The New Slash and Burn!
If you take a look at your average slash pile, smoldering through a grey and snowy day in the middle of February, atop a rugged hill adjacent to a freshly thinned parcel on the Big Butte Plateau in the Cascade Range of southern Oregon, it’s not hard to imagine dollar bills going up in smoke.
Consider the effort it took to skid the debris from the thinning operation into a nice, tight packed pile suitable for burning when the weather is just right. Consider the fuel used and the time and manpower it takes to monitor the burn.
Guess what? You see that smoke? It’s all about the Benjamins ($100 bills).
Now, thanks to the combined efforts of Walking Point Farms Inc. and Ragnar Original Innovations Inc., there may be a new prospect for that dumb old slash pile. It’s called biochar.
Simply put, biochar is charcoal used as a soil amendment. It’s made from biomass via a process called pyrolysis. The process results in an extremely porous, light-weight carbon-rich material that can improve water and nutrient retention in soils and provide numerous other environmental benefits.
Ragnar Original Innovations (ROI) has developed a portable process and hardware to produce biochar. It’s called the Carbonator 500 — and it’s massive. Lowboy massive.
It’s built like a tank, complete with tracks, and it is remote controlled. It can devour 15-20 tons of slash per hour, which is dropped into the combustion chamber and burned at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. A 148-horsepower diesel engine powers fans that create an air curtain around the fire, keeping in smoke and emissions while keeping out oxygen — pyrolysis. The resulting residue falls beneath a grate into a chamber where it is quenched in water to stop combustion. Auger conveyors remove the finished biochar from the vehicle, where it can be cooled and collected.
Walking Point Farms, a company owned by disabled veterans, that brokers with government agencies and partners to provide agricultural products such as biochar, fertilizer, and herbicides, has expressed keen interest in the Carbonator 500.
Chris Tenney, Vice President of Business Operations, said they are working with Ragnar Original Innovation to help the technology gain a foothold in the Pacific Northwest. The Carbonator’s low operational costs, small diesel engine and fewer moving parts is more efficient than chippers and its environmental qualities make the Carbonator a perfect fit for NW forests.
Introduced in the January/February issue of TimberWest in a fine article by Andrea Watts, DroneSeed Inc. has just inked a contract with the Nature Conservatory Oregon to help restore rangelands affected by invasive species and re-seed native plants in Southeast Oregon.
By partnering with DroneSeed, the Nature Conservancy will have access to UAS swarm technology designed to-scale to plant and protect significant acreage while planting in precision areas to boost survival rates.
DroneSeed CEO and founder Grant Canary noted that the objective of the project is to test and demonstrate that DroneSeed’s innovative approach can achieve successful restoration faster and more efficiently than conventional methods.
To date we haven’t been able to find out how successful DroneSeed’s recent plantings have been. Most of the results are likely still under a couple feet of snow. When trees are planted by hand, they’re two years old, and the survival rate is around 50 percent. I wonder what the rate will be with this new application.
If it works, great. Time will tell.
Stay safe out there.
Talk back at [email protected].
ON THE COVER
Carbonator 500 carbonizing woody materials.
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