Fire-damaged timber is still salvageable

Issue Date: September 5, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman
Ken Fleming, a forester who serves as president of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, stands near fire-damaged trees and brush last week in the Stanislaus National Forest. Fleming said the timber could be salvaged within a couple of years, but what he and other timber producers could really use is a speedier permitting process for timber harvests that could help maintain healthier forests.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

For a month, the Donnell Fire has been chewing its way through the Stanislaus National Forest in Tuolumne County. Amid a stand of blackened trees along Clarks Fork Road near Pinecrest, Ken Fleming saw signs of hope.

"This timber is salvageable if we get it within two years," he said. "And for the most part, it will be good timber. It's still viable for lumber."

Fleming, a region forester for Sierra Pacific in Sonora and president of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, would also like to cut down the paperwork. Putting together a timber harvest plan and running it through a California Environmental Quality Act review can take as long as a year under normal circumstances.

"I don't know how you would speed it up, but maybe a speedier process to get them through" would be helpful, Fleming said.

The summer of 2018 has not exactly been normal. Wildfires from Shasta to Mariposa counties have laid waste to hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, and some in the timber business are calling for a different approach to forest management and fire prevention.

"Where it's really bothering me long term is that so much time and resources now have to be put toward treating the mortality and the fire salvage, that those resources aren't being used proactively to start setting up green timber cells in the areas that haven't burned to make those more fire-resilient," said Shaun Crook, a Tuolumne County logging contractor and second vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Rich Gordon, president and chief executive of the California Forestry Association, said he thinks it's time for a cleanup.

"The key problem is that our forests are overgrown," Gordon said. "They're just too dense. We've had years of fire suppression. We've also had the strictest timber-harvest rules in the world. Sometimes that makes it more difficult to remove material. But at the end of the day, you've got to reduce the fuel load in our forests, and you do that by thinning and removing some of the tree stock."

In the short term, that means salvage logging—taking the burned trees that are still commercially viable. Fleming said pine trees that have been through a fire can develop a blue stain from a fungus, which doesn't threaten the wood's integrity but does reduce its commercial value. With other species, time is of the essence.

"The fir species and the cedar, they're all good right now," Fleming said. "If we get into next year before they salvage this, toward the end of late summer, you're going to start getting pests into it." Smaller-diameter trees are prone to cracking, which renders the boards unusable, he added.

Then there's the question of what to do with such smaller trees.

"Smaller timber can't pay for its way out of the woods, so you have to have some larger timber to supplement that," Fleming said. Sending the smaller trees to a cogeneration plant doesn't pay enough, he said.

The other problem with that is "we have reduced the infrastructure for bioenergy in the state, and we have made it more challenging to get material to bioenergy facilities," Gordon said. "One of the things that California needs to do is to understand that the best use of the dead trees, the best use of the excess forest waste, would be to convert it into energy through biomass facilities. We need to make some investment in that."

Gordon said he sees a social benefit to converting potential wildfire fuels to energy.

"We may have to figure out if there's some premium that we need to pay to get that done," he said. "We're paying millions and millions and millions to fight these fires. We need to spend some money to prevent them. We do that best by thinning the forest and removing material."

The Donnell Fire, which started a month ago, had no trouble racing through the Clarks Fork Road area.

"The fire was burning very hot, very fast," said Steve Rasmussen, a public information officer from the Southern California Interagency Management Team 1. "You had very receptive fuels that were preheating and igniting ahead of it. The earth is scorched, which tells us it was burning very hot."

Reducing those fuels is critical, Crook said.

"What we have to do is look at the areas of the forest that we have not been managing the last 50 years," Crook said. "We need to get past the idea we need to thin the forest. We need to go back to commercial logging.

"Our national forests have gone so out of control that we really have to take a step back in time and go back to logging these landscapes and getting it into the condition it was 100-plus years ago," Crook added.

Streamlining efforts to get timber harvesting plans approved is the aim of Assembly Bill 2889, which cleared the Legislature and was on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk at press time. Also making its way through the Legislature ahead of last Friday's deadline to send bills to the governor was Assembly Bill 2518, which directs the state Natural Resources Agency and Cal Fire to identify impediments to timber production in the state and come up with solutions consistent with the state's climate objectives.

"CFBF is supportive of any actions that would increase the pace and scale of forest management activities," said Robert Spiegel, a CFBF policy advocate. "Not only would these actions reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, they would also increase the sustainability of California's forests and provide improved economic conditions in the state's rural communities."

Crook said he believes he and the environmental community have the same objective in mind.

"We want a healthy forest," Crook said. "We believe that industry has the tools to create that. We have tried your way the last 50 years, and you see what we've created with these fires.

"It's time for a severe 180-degree change in our management," Crook added. "The proof is up in the smoke."

Gordon noted that Sacramento residents spent much of August breathing unhealthy air, as smoke from the Carr Fire and Mendocino Complex drifted south.

"It's a wake-up call for those who come from our urban areas and may not directly experience these fires," Gordon said. "When folks in San Francisco can't breathe because of the smoke from the Wine Country fires last year, all of a sudden they understand what a wildfire is."

To Crook, proper management is something the state can't afford not to do.

"Look at the dollar amounts it's cost to fight these fires, and then imagine if we could take that same dollar amount and if we were proactive with treatment to that landscape," Crook said. "How many acres could we treat for those dollars? How many homes could be saved? How many lives are not going to be at risk because of that fire?

"If we're going to spend $100 million," Crook said, "let's prevent a fire."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.