October/November, 2001





Under Fire

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. 

Chris Welter

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." 

Timberjack 1270 Harvester

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 Northwest magazines.

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