November 8, 2018, the world changed for Jenny Lowrey and her family and tens of thousands of Jenny’s Northern California neighbors as the forests of Butte County exploded into flames.
Seventeen days later, the Camp Fire had become the largest in California history, killing at least 85 people, burning 150,000 acres of wildlands, destroying as much as 95 percent of two towns, Paradise and Concow, incinerating nearly 19,000 structures, and inalterably changing lives.
A lot is being learned, and is yet to be learned, in the aftermath of the Camp fire regarding the need to rethink past approaches to recovering a forest that has been drastically altered by catastrophic fire; especially regarding the use of burned logs in assisting recovery efforts.
The emergence of climate change as a major issue has made many old thoughts and approaches to the re-establishment of a fire-damaged forest obsolete. New approaches that consider the impact of billions of tons of fiber giving up their sequestered carbon to the atmosphere are essential as advocates, professionals, and interested citizens alike work to re-establish healthy and resilient forests for the future.
A citizen’s group in California, From The Ground Up Farms, is exploring some of those new approaches to post-fire recovery, approaches that address forest and community health and resilience and have the potential to set at least one standard for treating the millions of acres where people and forests must coexist.
From the Ground Up Farms in Chico, California, was founded in 2013 after Jenny Lowrey, who was battling serious health issues of her own, realized how “critical good nutrition, organic food, and access to education about food,” were to her own health and to the health of an entire community.
“We realized our community had a serious food security issue, and we don’t believe healthy, organically grown food should be a luxury only the wealthy can afford,” Jenny recalls. The result was a community organization that provides free, sustainably grown, organic foods and, perhaps more important, education about growing foods to residents of the entire Northern California region surrounding Chico.
The fire changed everything in just two weeks. “Every member of the organization has been affected by the Camp Fire,” Jenny says. “We’ve lost homes, businesses, and friends.” Jenny’s own daughter-in-law, Aindrea, was trapped in the fire zone for two days before she could be rescued.
The “Ground Uppers,” as Jenny calls them, responded to the fire emergency almost immediately. “We had Ground Uppers by day three of the fire sending hundreds of blankets, tents, tarps, sleeping bags, and respirators,” she says. “Groups that had been working with us on food security stepped up immediately with the funding needed to rebuild our community garden destroyed in the fire.”
In keeping with the need to change after the devastation of the fire, From the Ground Up approached Butte County’s North Valley Community foundation, an organization that had been a stalwart in recovery efforts, with a “crazy idea.” According to Jenny, “We thought a mobile sawmill could be used to turn burned trees into lumber — lumber that could be used to rebuild some of the structures destroyed in the fire. The foundation responded, helping make our idea a reality with a grant.”
Jenny reports that Wood-Mizer, the manufacturer of the sawmill chosen for the effort, came through as well. “We received a Wood-Mizer LT40 Wide Body hydraulic mill, including a debarker, cant hooks, and other extras. It was about $32,000ish for the mill and after all the additions and free stuff, we received about a $40,000 value. We had a $25,000 grant from North Valley, and Wood-Mizer generously made that work.”
Starting a Mill
Jason Romer, From the Ground Up’s farming coordinator offered to learn how to run the mill. “I had no previous experience,” Jason says, “but my father Bruce did tons of research online, and a few of my neighbors with experience showed me a few things — and practice makes perfect! I will say it’s pretty easy to learn once you have been shown the basics. The Wood-Mizer company has been very helpful, and their machines are amazing.”
As to the process, according to Jason, identifying and using dangerous trees first is a priority. “We leave everything standing that we can because the longer it’s standing, the longer it takes to go rotten so any tree that has life in it, and isn’t an obvious hazard, is left for the time being.”
Once trees are selected, many people assist with felling them. “Some are brought down by arborist friends because they are dangerous, but most are brought down by the guys who have been helping run the mill or by the owners of the property where we are working.” Jason points out that while burned trees can be considerably more dangerous to bring down than live trees, the overall methods are the same for both. Most of the trees milled come from the land owned by those benefitting from the lumber.
According to Jason, most of the good lumber he and his fellow volunteers have milled so far is being used for outbuildings where people can make dry safe storage space, laundry and bathrooms, decks, porches, and things like that, though, “…we are now starting to have people make lumber for their permitted structures as they make their way through the permit process.” Scraps are used for animal shelters, fencing, garden beds, and similar projects. No one is charged for the lumber they receive.
With the sawmill up and operating successfully, Jenny continues, “We realized we really needed a tractor. We went to our local John Deere dealer, Valley Truck and Tractor in Chico, and spoke to one of their sales guys. We explained our nonprofit was helping Concow fire families for free. We explained North Valley Community Foundation had given us a grant to purchase a used tractor to work with. He gave us the name of a farmer who refurbishes and sells used equipment.” Eventually, they arrived at a “great deal” on a mid 90’s John Deere 310SE tractor/backhoe. The equipment, like the mill, Jenny says, is free for families affected by the fire to help with rebuilding.
Mobile, thin-kerf sawmills offer important attributes in addressing recovery after a forest fire. Trees almost certain to harm people and property in the near future can be selected for milling, while stems that were not completely destroyed in a fire and still useful for forest recovery are left standing. Because lumber can be milled and used almost at the stump, little fossil fuel use is involved. Using logs to mill lumber otherwise destined to give up its carbon as greenhouse gas emissions replaces the need to purchase lumber milled from healthy trees elsewhere in rebuilding. And the social cohesion created as the community works together on recovery makes From the Ground Up’s approach to recovery unique.
Jenny’s “crazy” idea may one day be seen as the standard for communities recovering after devastating forest fires.
On the Cover
JEM Forestry's and its Link-Belt and John Deere combo at work in the woods
Fourth-Generation Logger Chases Dream
Justin Everhart had always dreamed of striking it out on his own, and that’s just what he did.
Dream to Realty — One Step at a Time
Jim Gahlsdorf, president of Gahlsdorf Logging Inc., knows that overcoming the challenges of owning and growing a business depends upon the ability to embrace change.
After the Fire
On November 8, 2108, the world changed for Jenny Lowrey and her family as the forests of Butte County, California, exploded into flames.
It’s All About Solutions
John Boak credits his success to the philosophy — life is not about problems, it’s about solutions.
A look at the wide variety of forwarders on the market.
New Technology on the fire line.
Vote: Your community, forests and livelihood depend on it