Kaiser Timber's South Fork
thinning operation curbs fire damage
By Kurt Glaeseman
We've all heard the old adage -
trial by fire. It's not that we always want a real trial; some of us are easily
convinced by theoretical applications, but sometimes we get one whether we want
it or not. That's what happened when a forest fire swept through the South Fork
Thinning Tract in California's Sierra Mountains. The August 2001 issue of
TimberWest introduced readers to Chris Welter, owner and operator of Kaiser
Timber, Inc., out of Auberry, California.
About the time the article came
out, Welter was on the fire line of the South Fork Fire, assessing the impact of
fire on an area where his cut-tolength operation had started fire breaks and
thinning for the Forest Service in 1998. Welter, an avid reader, has spent years
developing an acceptable rationale for correct forest management- one that
incorporates an insatiable appetite for lumber, increasingly stringent
guidelines for harvesting Forest Service land, and his own personal views about
what is good for the planet.
He runs a small operation on the
western slope of California's Southern Sierras, to the south of Yosemite Park.
The areas was well-known in the 1920s for high quality sugar pine but was
neglected when the Great Depression shut down most of the sawmills and logging
companies. In 1998 Welter brought his cut-to-length operation to North Fork,
where he began thinning timber and building fire breaks for the Forest Service
on what was called the South Fork Thinning Sale. "Before 1998,"
explains Welter, "the area was way overstocked with a combination of
incense cedar, white fir, Ponderosa pine, sugar pine, black oak, and manzanita
and ceonothus brush."
The harvest plan included the
30-inch restriction; a tree with a 30-inch (or greater) diameter could be cut
only if it was determined to be a road hazard. The specs for separate tracts
within the sale varied-some required thinning for later harvest, while others
were to be fuel breaks for fire management and control. In spite of deep snow,
Welter keeps his crew working year-round. One man runs a Timberjack 1270 and
another skids and loads with a Timberjack 1210.
Welter himself precedes the 1270
and handfalls anything over 20 inches, even though the machine can handle stems
up to 27 inches. Less machine work is both an economic and an environmental
consideration. The South Fork Fire in August put both the Forest Service Harvest
Plan and Welter's execution of that plan to a real test. The fire, believed to
have been started by a spark from a woodsplitter, lasted for about eight days
and charred over 4200 acres.
A hot back-fire did destroy some
good timber, but the establishment of 150-foot firebreaks along the roads and
the intensive thinning paid off. According to Welter, the fire crowned in only a
few spots but then made its way to the ground, where it could be fought. "I
know the importance of the dozers and hotshot crews and air support," says
Welter, "but our previous work made the situation defensible.
We aren't allowed to 'manage' the
sensitive creek zone areas, and the unthinned Willow Creek drainage got burned
up." In other areas, even though the Forest Service had not yet piled and
burned the slash (excess fuel), the absence of fuel ladders toned the fire down
and made it controllable. "Thank goodness we stopped it when we did, or it
would have been into tens of thousands of acres of timber on rugged land that
would have been hard, very hard, to control and manage," says Welter.
"Of course I give credit to the planners and firefighters, but the bottom
line is that our cut-to-length thinning and fuel suppression was very effective
in helping to control a potentially devastating fire."
Kurt taught English and French for
33 years before becoming a freelance writer. He has written for a variety of
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