Can mushrooms help prevent megafires? (Article)

Please enjoy a gift link to the article in the Washington Post.

Although this can be accomplished with prescribed burns, the risk of controlled fires getting out of hand has foresters embracing another solution: selectively sawing trees, then stripping the limbs from their trunks and collecting the debris. The challenge now is what to do with all those piles of sticks, which create fire hazards of their own. Some environmental scientists believe they have an answer: mushrooms. Fungus has an uncommon knack for transformation. Give it garbage, plastic, even corpses, and it will convert them all into something else — for instance, nutrient-rich soil.

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Could you quote some information of the article to make the article more appealing to read?

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I added one but I mean depending on one’s interest in controlled and wild fires, mushrooms and environmental science, one may think I chose the wrong quote entirely.

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Here - when we clear invasive aliens. The piles are left for stack-burning.
I wonder if mushrooms would be a better solution - but climate?
Certainly better for air pollution, carbon capture, wildlife and biodiversity.
But recycling extra nutrients into fynbos is not good.

Hundreds of thousands of slash piles already lay in wait here until conditions are right. Ideally, this means snow on the ground, moisture in the air and little wind.

@tonyrebelo even more difficult than waiting for the right conditions for stack-burning ?

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Usually, journalists write the start of the article to be broadly appealing, raising curiosity. I often use that part when sharing articles.

Sometimes, yes, however like many, this particular article is started with a setting of the scene and Fair Use limits how much I can quote.

I think I will leave it at: Those who are interested are welcome to read and I have provided a free-to-read link with which to do so. Those who are not interested need not.

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The cause of megafires is usually inappropriate fire prevention, which in fire-prone ecosystems means that fuels accumulate, meaning that the fires will be bigger. The more money thrown at preventing fires, the higher the fuel load. Eventually, the fuel load exceeds the capacity of the fire-fighters and a disaster happens. The cause of the disaster is the fire fighters and the logic that fires need to be suppressed. The easiest way to prevent megafires is to burn more often. It is a no-brainer.

In Med ecosystems, the fire season is the hot dry season (versus hot wet: which suppresses fire, or cold wet; in our non-Med southern African systems the fire season is the cold dry season: basically wet prevents fire spread and hinders ignition).
Hot dry summers means that biology stops working: just like cold slows down metabolism, lack of water stops metabolism, so both plant growth and microbial/fungal decay cease as well. So fuel accumulates rather than decomposes, which is why Med ecosystems have the most spectacular fires (after fools try to suppress it, creating the megafire problem, etc.)

The situation in your photograph illustrates why aliens, with their lack of biocontrols, and consequent rampant growth rates, create huge amounts of biomass at 2-5 times the rate of indigenous plants, and thus are a MAJOR fire hazzard. A summer fire ripping through here will be spectacular, but the stacks will create such intense fires as to destroy the soil seed banks, as well as destroy the soil structure (not just the organics, but alter the soil minerals, and sublimate some elements), and greatly increase the soil erodibility. Keeping fire out of these stacks is a nightmare, so a wet season stack burn is recommended, after the soil is wet enough for the surface water to protect the soil and seed banks beneath: basically instead of baking at 600-1200*C, the soil just boils (also the wood is wetter, so the fire temperatures are much lower).

An option not explored would be to irrigate the stacks in summer, thus allowing decomposition. However, huge amounts of water will be required and Cape Town is short of water, and the end of summer often sees concerns about “day zero” as demand outstrips supply. Salt water will not work, and would destroy any rehabilitation, or passive regeneration from seed banks (assuming anything else can compete with the Wattle seed banks which are often hundreds of thousand seeds per m2).

By far the best solution is not to allow these alien stands in the first place. They are illegal - and in this case the culprit is an absent, overseas landlord, who probably brought the area as an investment for development, so allowing the aliens to destroy the Fynbos allows one to get around the EIA and development restrictions, by simply paying the minimal fines for having the aliens.

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I hope for a fynbos solution for that slope - since we often hike on Elsie’s Peak and Brakkloofrant. The new owner has rehab intentions.

My AFIS map is dead. But this wildfire map link works.

Private property so there are minimal obs there
but here is Trametes on felled invasive Hakea

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There are properties of certain mushrooms that can do all sorts of things, I mean a fungi developed to live uniqely in jet fuel tankers gaining sustenance from kerosene, which theoretically if you could scale it, could be used to help clean up crude oil spills and turn it back into organic matter. In regards to fire, mycellia is quite a good fire retardant, and NASA has been testing mycellia as a potential out of our atmosphere building material for structures, as radiations is something it will soak up just find, and it i very strong, but it doesnt handle direct pressure well. Though when exposed to fire the mycelium will form a really resistant char layer at the surface which protects further burning (similar to how cooking mushrooms it is quite hard to make the too soft from cooking too long, though that is from the hypah. So to answer the question from the article you excerpted, I don’t think it will be ideal for forest fires and wildfires due to scalability, but it has really good potential uses such as insulation for the construction industry. It is a fantastic natural insulator. Fungi can do amazing things, like a certain species can if placed downstream in water infected with ecoli, purify the water that runs through it, but i can’t stress enough, it has to scale, and these are major projects we are talking about. People like Stamens kind of sell a fantasy of half truths when it comes to what all we can do with fungi, and one must remember it was not even known to be its own kingdom until 1970, despite being on earth about 1.5 billion years and responsible for life being able to shift on to land.

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I’m very skeptical. Yes, if you live in a place like I do with wet mild winters fungi can naturally decompose branches and tree trunks very quickly. However, the article seems to be suggesting adding artificial irrigation and spraying with fungal spores. Both these procedures require additional energy inputs and those inputs are probably going to require burning petroleum products. Burning more petroleum is not going to save us from the problems that were largely created by burning petroleum.

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This is a valid concern/factor to take into account, but this can be done in a cost/benefit analysis framework. Almost any (maybe actually any?) action we take will involve some energy/resource input, but some of them will still have net positive impacts when we take that into account. For instance, we’d need to have an upfront energy/resource input to build any energy production device (solar panel, wind turbine, nuclear power plant, etc.), but in the long run these can produce more usable energy than the initial input. So I think the answer is probably that this approach might be appropriate in some situations where the math says it is a net gain, but there are probably many situations where the benefits wouldn’t be worth the costs.

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Great point. However, we seldom see CBA’s. They just don’t grab the attention of the public or politicians.

I’ve given a lot of thought to how to control forest fuel loads. Especially since I realized that the Western red cedars on my lot are all dying, the understory is drying out and groundwater levels are decreasing. For the past five years, I’ve lived in fear of some idiot flicking a butt out the window. My little hill will burn like a bomb.

The local fire chief recommends cutting out ‘bush’, also known as the understory, and chipping it. The community has chipping events where locals can truck in their brush and forest debris, have it chipped, and then take some home. All of burns petrol and can only be done in the fall or winter when the fire risk is low.

While piling the forest debris and spraying it to encourage fungal decay might have worked in the past water levels are too low now. More and more local residents need to truck in drinking water from off-island. If anyone caught me spraying my brush pile with water… it doesn’t bear thinking about.

I’ve only been able to think of two possible solutions; creating biochar during the winter, or burying forest debris in a pit where it can decay slowly.

We have a closed combustion stove for heating in winter.
Burns logs.
Which are harvested from cleared aliens.
For carbon capture and air pollution - not good.

There is a small project (so small I cannot find the link) to turn the brush piles into charcoal - which is then sold as fuel (that would be your biochar)

Neither is a good solution - but better than simply burning to waste to reduce fuel load and protect neighbouring houses?

Where I live the biochar is sold to gardeners and not burned as is typical with most charcoal in Africa.

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Burying wood is probably the most realistically practical form of carbon sequestration, and I would think converting it to biochar first probably mitigates much of the decomposition gas and stockpile fire concerns.

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Could someone put it in simpleton’s terms for me. Charcoal, as I understand it, is “let’s burn this wood to turn that wood into charcoal to burn.” How does this reduce emission?

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This is about fuel load reduction to prevent houses burning.
People first, emissions second. You know the rules :smiling_face_with_tear:

Browsers for the leafy green sapling stage of invasives. Farmed goats, or wild eland here.
Or revert to indigenous knowledge of fire management in Australia, USA. Not sure if that knowledge survives anywhere in South Africa?

i’m more worried about the other impacts of mechanical fuel removal (aside from invasives and such). Removing some vegetation, in and of itself, can be neutral or even beneficial, but the equipment and roads needed cause severe watershed damage. In the recent severe flooding in my area it was very obvious that even a seldom used logging road can very quickly concentrate water leading to blow-outs, worsening flash floods and mudslides. Add to that increase severity of floods due to climate change, and it’s hard to imagine a benefit aside from clearing near developed areas.

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Great question!

When ordinary wood is heated, it begins releasing volatile organic compounds as gasses. This process is called pyrolysis. This will happen just from the heat, even if no oxygen is available to burn the gasses. If oxygen and enough additional heat are mixed with the gasses, these gasses will burn, producing CO2, water, and more heat. If sufficient oxygen and heat are not added, they will be released as smoke. For a variety of reasons, releasing smoke is far more environmentally damaging than releasing CO2 and water vapor (steam), so it is generally preferable to design some kind of flue that ensures the pyrolysis gasses do combust completely. Also, this way the heat produced can sometimes be used for something else.

What is left after the gasses leave is charcoal sensu lato (through more precise control of the heat and oxygen conditions, it can be made to be biochar instead, which is more useful as a soil amendment). Charcoal will not continue to burn without oxygen unless heated to very high temperatures, at which point it would start converting to graphite. Therefore, if the charcoal is allowed to cool for a sufficiently long period of time and exposed to weather, it is a pretty stable product, and can be buried without too much concern that it will set on fire again, or decompose much. The fertility of soil amended with biochar can be increased for millennia, and this was a major indigenous soil management practice in the Amazon. Additionally burying the charcoal would then sequester all the remaining carbon. Uncontrolled burning such as in forest fires will allow both combustion processes (burning the gasses and burning the charcoal) to proceed to completion, often without burning the smoke very efficiently.

On the other hand, wood by itself can continue to rot, and release some of those volatile gasses that you could have burned as decomposition gasses, especially if exposed to water and oxygen. Capturing the methane offgassed by landfills is a major landfill design concern. Landfills can also catch fire, and landfill fires are a huge mess to put out. A carbon sequestration procedure of burying wood without charring it would likely need to address these concerns somehow.

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The key is understanding the natural environment. Technology can prevent megafires. Few years ago, there were big fires at Australia. I don’t live in Australia btw. I thought that they should build underground reservoirs, as well as construct some natural ones. So that firefighters can have an easier source of water. One school of thought of native Australians is to burn the land deliberately to reduce the carbon material. No doubt that they know their land more than me. Me in the tropics, I know of one tree species which is said to be resistant to fires. There may be more, but it will be exotic plants in other parts of the world. So people should identify their native trees which are resistant to fires. The Australian eucalyptus are prone to fires, as well as the pines of the temperate northern countries…If people can be flexible and allow some plantings of exotic plants, perhaps some deserts can be turned into forests. But it is difficult considering that the world is urbanising. Any trees planted may be cut down. Trees and plants, and algae, are the carbon capture natural solution. and some people won’t allow plants to grow because wood and dried grass are prone to fire.