Jonathan Kusel owns three pickups and a 45-foot truck for hauling woodchip bins. He operates a woodchip yard and a 35-kilowatt biomass plant that burns dead trees, and he runs a crew marking trees for loggers working in national forests. Those are a lot of blue-collar credentials for a University of California, Berkeley PhD sociologist known for his documentation of how the decline of the timber industry affects rural communities.
What drove Kusel into a side business — logging small and dead trees and burning them in biomass boilers — is fear of fire. In 2007, the 65,000-acre Moonlight Fire blew flaming embers onto his lawn near Taylorsville, California as he readied his family to evacuate. Last September, the Walker Fire scorched 54,614 acres just up the valley from the offices of the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, the nonprofit research organization Kusel founded in 1993. In that 12-year span, wildfires burned 690 square miles in the northern Sierra Nevada.
Drought, a warming climate, and bark-beetle infestations have also killed 147 million California trees since 2013, most of them along the Sierra spine running south from Kusel’s home base past Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park to Tehachapi Pass, 75 miles north of Los Angeles. Scientists say these trees are poised to burn in California’s next round of megafires, threatening the range with blazes so intense they will leave some places unable to establish new forests.
Kusel, 63, is one of a growing number of citizens and officials anxious to put those trees and their thick undergrowth to use before they ignite large-scale wildfires, pollute the air with choking smoke, and release large amounts of CO2. His institute has invested in logging equipment to supply wood chips to community biomass facilities, which burn them to produce heat and electricity. This is low-value vegetation that would have burned in natural fires a century ago, before the U.S. Forest Service began suppressing fire…