Every logger knows that a wildfire burning on or near the timber sale they’re working is not only dangerous and harmful to the environment, it’s also completely bad for business. When fire happens, logging crews often are the first suppression crews on the scene. It’s above and beyond the call of duty, but a necessary reality in the woods.
Whether it is coincidence or karma, Austin Weber, president of Weber Logging and Construction Inc. out of Roseburg, Oregon, knows this situation first hand — and maybe better than most. Weber, who has run his own outfit for over 11 years, currently fields a crew of 20 to cover two cable sides and one shovel side. Over the past three years, he has dealt with two fires that have had radically different outcomes.
A Lightning Rich Environment
In late July 2015, while working the “Jack” timber sale in the Lower Steamboat drainage of the Umpqua National Forest, Weber was cable logging under IFPL Level 2. He shut his operation down early in the day because of a fast-approaching lightning storm.
“We had nine hours in, so we decided it would probably be best for us to head in for the day. All the way down the hill, lightning was frequent and sometimes too close for comfort,” Weber says recalling that day.
The next morning, one of Weber’s loader operators reported that he had seen a fire burning above the 2.5-mile marker on Jack Creek Road. After calling it in to forest service dispatch, Weber and his dad Andy, strung a fire hose up the hill and immediately got water on the blaze. Both men did some shovel work and had the fire out in about a half hour.
After they got the fire out, they left the fire truck at the site in case the blaze reignited, and then both men returned to the logging side and went back to work. Later that morning, Weber got a call from the Forest Service wondering about a possible fire.
“I told them there was a fire and that it was extinguished, and that we had put it out. The ranger was surprised we put it out, but said he’d send a crew up to have a look,” Weber says. “They didn’t get there until after 2:00 p.m. Makes me wonder how big a fire would have grown if we hadn’t put it out.”
Don’t Delay. Get ‘er Done.
During the 2017 fire season, lightning once again hammered the North Umpqua region. More than 42 fires were reported overnight on August 10. There were 22 fires in the Diamond Lake Ranger District, five in the North Umpqua Ranger District, and 15 in the Tiller Ranger District.
Some of those fires went on to become part of the North Umpqua Complex fire, which devastated over 44,000 acres of forest land.
Once again, Weber had his crew working the Jack timber sale and spotted a fire. Like before, he called it in and went to locate it.
“We spotted it and when we got down, we were told that a Hot Shot crew was coming to take care of it, but then they pulled the Hot Shots off to go after another fire. We watched it from our job. It smoldered for four days. Then the weather changed, and it blew up.”
The fire eventually grew to over 10,000 acres, shutting down the Jack sale and others in the area, burning millions of board feet of timber and destroying wildlife habitat. It was called the Racket Ridge Fire and was part of the North Umpqua Complex.
Because there were so many lightning starts on the Umpqua National Forest last summer, several were not located soon enough, or suppression resources were not available to attack the fires.
“The Forest Service was short on personnel, so they sat back and waited for an incident team to come. The first few days there, they could have gained some headway and put some of the fires out if they’d pulled resources out of the logging industry,” says Weber.
Weber thinks the Forest Service needed to ask loggers in the area to help suppress the fires and compensate them for it. Noting that his crew could have spent a day on the fire and put it out, he would have charged the Forest Service a fraction of the eventual cost for suppression.
Weber is still haunted by the fire. “Makes me wonder how different the outcome would have been if we had just put it out. Millions in suppression costs saved, and no huge resources lost.”
Positive Attitude. Positive Growth.
In the 11 years Weber has been in business, he has grown his company to the three sides it operates with a positive attitude and the willingness to try something new.
Recently, Weber jumped into steep slope logging with both feet when the company purchased a Summit Attachments and Machinery tethering system. A Summit winch is attached to a 330 Caterpillar, which tethers a Tigercat 855 with a directional saw.
“We adapt to what we have to do,” he says. “We wanted to maximize our production off the yarder, so the tethering system looked like a good way to go.”
Currently, Weber operates the system, but has one of his crew training to take the reins, noting that running a steep slope machine is not for everyone. “It’s a special niche. You got to want it,” he says.
Weber’s outfit also fields a 330 CAT paired with a Jewel Timber Master package. “It’s basically a yoder,” Weber says. “The tower sits off the stick and stands 40 feet tall. The bucket is down so it won’t tip.”
To date, the tethering system is deployed to Weber’s yarder sides, working steep ground with either the Thunderbird 255 or Madill 071 towers. The company’s iron roster also includes three shovels, a Tigercat 880, a CAT 320, and a 270 Komatsu. In addition to a CAT 525 skidder, a Link-Belt 4040 is paired with a Log Max 10,000, while a CAT 324 is equipped with a Log Max 7000. Lastly, he has a Timbco 445 paired off with another Log Max 7000.
Weber’s journey into the industry, like many, began early. “I started out in junior high school working with my dad setting chokers behind a CAT. When I was 18 or 19, I went to work for another outfit setting chokers off a yarder. When you start out at the bottom, every day is a challenge.”
“You start with nothing and work your way up,” Weber says, looking back. And hard work pays off. At 37, he’s running his own company.
While his company has experienced rapid growth, Weber views the future pragmatically. “I hope to stay about the same size we’re at now,” he says. “I hope for 30 more good years.”
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