By Dawn Killough
After the barrage of forest fires in the summer of 2020, West Coast logging companies were scrambling to harvest all the burnt timber in a race against time and the insect infestations that can ruin burnt lumber when it sits too long.
We spoke with Joel Rink, Green Diamond Resource Company’s Logging and Road Superintendent of Klamath Operations in California, about their efforts to reclaim lumber lost in last summer’s forest fires. Green Diamond owns land that was burned in the Slater Fire along the border of northern California. The fire, which started near Happy Camp, California, on September 8, 2020, traveled more than 20 miles in just 24 hours. Rink and his team were dispatched to the site the following day to begin salvage operations.
According to Rink, the biggest struggle with salvaging the lumber was finding mills that would accept it for processing, as many were overrun with a surge of supply. Green Diamond does not have its own mill to process the lumber, and therefore had to rely on other mills to process the timber they harvest. One batch Green Diamond harvested went to South Coast Lumber in Brookings, Oregon, to be made into dimensional lumber and peeler stock.
The Moore Track, where Green Diamond was working, is made up of mostly Douglas fir trees with a smattering of sugar pine. While Douglas fir can be used for structural lumber — even when it’s burned — there isn’t much of a market for burnt sugar pine.
Other struggles Green Diamond faced during the reclaiming process included getting access to their land after the fire. During normal operations they would have had plenty of time to build roads and infrastructure to access the harvest area, but under the circumstances, they had to wait on right-of-way easements to use roads and crossings built by their neighbors and the Forest Service. Due to the speed required of the salvage operation, there was no time to build stream crossings and bridges. If the infrastructure had been added before the fire, the job would have been easier, but hindsight is 20/20.
Insects are another enemy Rink and his team faced last year. Insects can start to affect fallen trees within three to four months after a fire. Crews had to work through the winter as much as possible to try to beat the bugs and prevent them from destroying their stock. California has strict rules related to timber harvesting during the winter, so they were also forced to work within those regulations.
The team worked daily to maintain a safe job site while navigating rugged terrain with burned trees, stump holes, and active fire surrounding them. Those conditions limited the equipment they could use to gather the trees, although they were able to use a feller buncher to speed the process.
Green Diamond had two ground bases working on the track, as well as a yoder and yarder side. There were about 20 to 25 total crewmembers throughout the site. Green Diamond had about 5,000 damaged acres on the affected property, and their hope was to have 10 percent of it harvested by spring 2021.
Green Diamond isn’t the only company that was forced to recover burnt timber in a hurry. Other companies in Oregon were scrambling to recover as much as they could before the winter weather rolled in. Freres Lumber Company lost about 7,500 of its 17,000 acres of timber in the 2020 fires. They estimated they would need to remove nearly 75 million feet of timber from their land by the end of 2021. Freres has their own mills to process the timber, so it doesn’t have to be sold right away.
Logging companies also struggled to find workers to help them in their recovery efforts. Crews were running long shifts seven days a week to recover as much as possible, but everyone was burnt out and it seemed there was no relief in sight.
On top of all this, there may be a lumber shortage coming in the next few years. With trees between the ages of 3 and 30 burnt, along with older stock, there won’t be much for logging companies to harvest in the coming years. This could lead to job losses in the industry and a shortage of lumber after the current stores are sold. Local companies may be able to purchase timber from other areas that aren’t affected by the wildfires to keep their mills running. Others may have to shut down.
The months have been tough on logging companies and employees who worked long hours to recover as much of the damaged timber as possible before insect infestations ruined the valuable resource before it could be harvested, while at the same time struggling to find mills capable of processing the sheer volume of timber produced by the summer 2020 fires.
One can only hope that the 2021 fire season will not be as severe and logging companies won’t be faced with these issues.
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