My Firewise Field Trip

My Firewise Field Trip

(Or: How I helped my community mitigate the climate crisis and made friends along the way)

I live in Southwest Oregon, a region that has been profoundly affected by fire over the past decade. While fire per se is a natural part of forest ecosystems, we’ve begun to experience dangerous megafires that can sweep across landscapes and continue burning for months at a time. The causes of these fires are complex and multifaceted, owing not just to climate change, but also to forestry practices that have allowed fuels to build up over the course of a century.

Our fire season tends to run from July to October, which means that the winter and spring are the best times to prepare. The common treatments are thinning and prescribed burning, both of which involve crews hiking into the forest and using gasoline to start a series of small, controlled fires with the intent of removing flammable material from the forest floor.

As one might expect, this releases a large amount of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of CO, CO2, and CH4. While prescribed burning is well-intentioned (and absolutely necessary), I believe there’s an opportunity to avoid some of these emissions by converting the burning wood into solid, durable, charcoal called biochar.

I was lucky enough to work alongside leading biochar expert Kelpie Wilson on a fuels reduction project in Takilma, Oregon, where we set out to achieve just this. With a special kiln of her own design (appropriately called The Ring of Fire), we cleared a field of highly flammable buckbrush and turned it into a thousand pounds of biochar.


The kiln is designed in such a way that the charcoal builds up vertically as the material on top burns. Smoke from the fire is pulled back into the kiln, which causes the fire to burn even hotter and more efficiently. As material accumulates, it effectively snuffs out the layer below, ending combustion. (In contrast, a typical burn pile continues burning until everything in it turns to ash.)

Once the kiln is full, it is extinguished with water. Then, it is fully disassembled, and the charcoal is raked out into a thin layer in order to help it cool. At this point, it’s ready to be integrated into the soil, where it will safely remain for centuries.

Kelpie is working with the Oregon Department of Forestry to get more of these kilns out into daily operations. We had a very long and wide-ranging conversation about how the voluntary carbon market might be able to find these kinds of projects. She also showed me a brand new mobile app she’s working on in order to help measure, record, and verify biochar offsets.

While we both agreed that it’s not a silver bullet to solve climate change, it could be an integral tool to help communities manage their fire risk while sequestering carbon at the same time. By her own calculations, it would take a person about three weeks worth of creating biochar to fully offset their carbon footprint for the year. It doesn’t scale infinitely, of course (there’s only so much biomass in the world), but I believe this is going to be an important piece of the puzzle.

Nice. I know there was some publicity about the use of an enclosed system near Coos Bay or the nearby dunes. Were you aware of that effort using a ‘CharBoss’ system?