By Andrea Watts
Following an outbreak of a wildfire, news coverage usually focuses on the number of acres burned, the number of firefighters on the line, how incident commanders are combating the fire, or the people who have been displaced. Missing from the news is the behind-the-scenes work that doesn’t revolve around fighting the fire.
When the wildfires break out on privately owned forestland in stands of merchantable timber, foresters are scrambling to fill out forest practices permits and contacting mills to find buyers for the burned timber. Once the burned area is deemed safe, that’s the cue for salvage operations to commence.
Although harvesting burned timber is similar to harvesting green timber, there are additional safety considerations and operational differences that contractors should be aware of when working a salvage operation.
Timeliness and Proper Sorting Are Critical
Every logging operation has productivity goals, but time is even more critical when salvaging burned timber because its value decreases the longer it’s exposed to insects. “Bark beetles create a blue stain in the Ponderosa pine so we have to get the timber out early to negate those impacts,” says J. D. Marshall, the region manager for Hancock Natural Resource Group. He oversaw the company’s salvage operations following the 2015 wildfire season in northeast Washington.
Jeremy Grose, a forester who specializes in log and sales purchasing for SDS Lumber Company, which is based in Bingen, Washington, says that during the summer, insects begin appearing within a week or two following a burn.
Regarding the aftermath of a wildfire that went through a stand of 400 acres of mixed plantation and mature Douglas-fir on SDS Lumber Company Land in July 2017, Grose says, “We knew insects were going to be an issue, because about 50 percent of the salvage volume was potentially export volume prior to the fire.” The export market in question, such as Japan or China, determines the level of insect damage that is acceptable to sell.
In this case, the SDS crew only had about five weeks of salvaging logs for the export market. After that time, the value was adversely affected. “When all the insects came to the party, we had to shift the logs to the domestic market because the export market wouldn’t buy the logs,” Grose says.
This means that properly sorting the logs takes on additional importance during salvage operations. “The big thing is being able to identify when and how those insects are showing up and being able to sort the wood correctly,” Grose explains, adding, “Being able to look at a log and identify whether it has a boring beetle as opposed to a bark beetle is key and just takes a little training.”
Improper sorting can also affect a mill’s operations. “Our company mill won’t accept burned wood because it will contaminate the residual stream, although another nearby mill purchased the burned timber, he says. The mills that Marshall worked with in northeast Washington also purchased the burned timber, and he and the mill owners were in regular contact to ensure that the sorting was being done correctly.
The wildfire’s severity will determine how much vegetation or debris remains on the landscape, which can affect the water runoff during precipitation events.
“Even in areas where we didn’t salvage log, we were preparing the roads for increased flow,” Marshall explains. “That meant armoring them up with rock or pulling culverts that were a potential for risk. We did a lot of road rocking to facilitate the operation.”
The crew also took additional protection such as spreading out the slash on the slopes to intercept the waterflow, as well as breaking up the soils to help control where the water would flow.
A certain level of dust is expected when harvesting green timber, but dust is even more noticeable during salvage operations.
“Dust was a big one even for our layout contractors,” Marshall says. “Just walking on the ground in areas that had a pretty intense fire go through, you were just kicking up dust all day.”
Jim Van Dyke, owner of Van Dyke Logging, which is based in Ione, Washington, was one of several contractors working on salvage operations undertaken by Hancock Natural Resource Group. “Because of the dust, my crew had to clean the equipment and air filters more often,” he says.
Potential Working Hazards
Although crews might have been given the “all clear” to enter a site, that doesn’t necessarily mean the wildfire is totally extinguished; flare ups can occur when the soil is disturbed. Hand cutters, should be aware of hot spots, which are not always obvious, Grose warns. “We had to go out and put the flare ups out, which was not enjoyable at all.” After the first flare up incident, their cutters were provided extra extinguishers because they were using several a day putting out hot spots.
Marshall echoes the warning of watching where you’re walking and being particularly aware of overhead hazards as well; if you see a tree with a green canopy, don’t assume it’s safe to work around.
“Be aware of the fact that in areas where ground fires burned intense, you could have a tree that looks alive based upon its green canopy, but if the roots and cambium were burned out, the tree may have no structural integrity,” says Marshall.
The ash on the ground, coupled with a lack of vegetation, can affect the stability of the equipment. On the sites that Van Dyke was working on, he found that the ash, coupled with a lack of vegetation, created slick conditions. “The skidders had a bit more trouble moving around,” he says.
As for the structural integrity of the timber, Grose says that “if you’re harvesting within the first year, you’re not going to have a lot of trouble with the structural integrity of the logs; [however] the logs may break down after a year or more.”
And with any logging operation, communication and trusting contractors is key. “The same considerations occur in green timber as in salvage,” Marshall said. “Just working with your contractors and figuring out what you can do on the ground, and most importantly, focusing on ensuring that safety is the top priority.”
Van Dyke agrees with Marshall about the communication. And looking back on the salvage operations that spanned a year, he says that overall the work went pretty smoothly.
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