On Saturday, I visited Edgewalkers Social Forestry Wintercamp, located this season in the mountains outside of Ashland, Oregon. This group of nomadic forest restoration workers is learning about forest restoration and fire ecology in oak woodlands through sharing knowledge and skills and also through sitting in quiet observation of the processes and creatures around them. They have been at the camp for four weeks now, and are beginning to apply their learning - cutting and burning small firs and brush that crowd the old oaks and compete with them for water and nutrients. These forests are adapted to a natural fire interval of a few decades, where wildfire used to clear out the understory on a regular basis, without damaging the big, old trees. A century of aggressive fire suppression has left the forests thick with small fuels that set the stage for conflagration - the explosive wildfires that have raged in the western forests of the US at an ever-increasing rate.
The Edgewalkers Forestry Camp - with their new Pyramid Kiln
The Edgewalkers have big ambitions. They want to not only learn skills and apply them to a piece of land, they also want to create new life paths for humans in relation to forests. Read more about them on their Indiegogo page. There is an upcoming opportunity to learn more about social forestry at the Social Forestry Advanced Permaculture Course with Tom Ward, February 2-7, 2015. Here's a description of the concept: "Social Forestry connects villages and communities to their forested water catchment basin. Here in a developed industrial empire, the forests are lonely. We have lost our sense of living with forests as friends."
I brought the Edgewalkers a Pyramid Kiln so they can make biochar during their evening campfires - Social Biochar! I hope they will use to also bake potatoes and grill food. I enjoyed meeting these dedicated forest workers. We talked about fire and the best ways to reintroduce it to the forests, as well as techniques for top lit fires that reduce smoke and leave behind biochar. Wet wood is the biggest challenge. Wet wood makes it difficult to build up a good bed of coals in the Pyramid Kiln, but once there is a layer of hot coals, the wet wood is more managable because there is enough heat to dry it.
Using a small Top-Lit Open Burn stack to start the Kiln. Notice we used a bit of dry firewood to get it started. This is really important when you only have wet wood to add. The dry stuff will give you a good quantity of hot char-coals to get started with.
When wood is wet, small diameter twigs won't char easily - they tend to go straight to ash. The challenge is to get enough heat in the bed of coals to dry and char larger sticks, so the char can build up.