By Jan Jackson
In response to the September 2020 wildfires — one of Oregon’s most devastating disasters in recorded history — the Oregon State legislature created a Debris Management Task Force made up of the Oregon Departments of Transportation (ODOT), Environmental Quality, and Emergency Management and charged them with the enormous task of safely and efficiently removing hazard trees, ash, and debris from the wildfires.
The fires, which burned more than one million acres across the state, destroyed more than 4,000 homes and businesses, and claimed the lives of nine Oregonians, also left more than 100,000 hazard trees dead and dying along the steep slopes and cliffs of three fire-ravaged Western Oregon highways. Because of the urgency of protecting passengers in the more than 100,000 cars that travel daily along the steep hillsides of these highways, ODOT had contracting mechanisms in place and was accepting bids for hazard tree removal three months later. The projects are being financed 75% by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and 25 percent by the State of Oregon.
Stepping into Action
Alaska-based general contractor Suulutaaq Inc., which has had an office in Oregon since 2017, is the prime contractor for tree removal operations in three of the fire areas: the Beachie Creek/Lionshead Fire along OR-22 in the Santiam Canyon, the Riverside Fire along OR-224 along the Clackamas River, and the Holiday Farm Fire along OR-126 in the McKenzie Valley. Originally contracted for hazard tree operations only in the Holiday Farm Fire corridor, by summer Suulutaaq received a contract change order to complete work in the other two fire areas.
Directing the Suulutaaq teams is Project Manager Joel Zeni, a native Oregonian who was born and raised in the McKenzie Valley. A five-year veteran with Suulutaaq’s Oregon operation in Eugene, Joel holds forestry engineering and civil engineering degrees from Oregon State University (OSU).
“Yeah, it’s crazy, and it’s a lot of work to do in a short time, but it’s definitely solving a safety issue because the trees were literally falling on the road,” Joel said. “There are over 83 miles of highway that needed to be cleared of hazards on the three projects. So many agencies working together on this kind of project has never been done on this scale before in Oregon,” he added.
“It all started for me when Jeff Brink (Brink’s Land Improvement, Pleasant Hill, Oregon) and I qualified on a bid we put together for the McKenzie Pass project. Because ODOT liked the job we were doing there, they asked us to take over the contract on the other two corridors. We started the McKenzie Pass job in December of 2020 and the Estacada/Detroit Highway and Santiam Pass jobs in July.”
Creating a Plan
To determine which trees need to be removed (based on whether they are dead or will be in the next three to five years), the state contracts with independent arborists. At no charge to the landowner, the trees are cut into merchantable lengths and stacked on their property. The property owner may reuse them, sell them, or mill them. If the owner doesn’t want them, ODOT removes them at no charge.
When the project needs machines and/or operators that Suulutaaq can’t supply, they employ local logging companies and equipment dealers to provide it. Currently in use are drones to gather information, helicopters with grapple saws for logging on the steep bluffs, log loaders, processors, feller bunchers, excavators with grapples, and long reach material handlers that grab brush and logs that are far away from the road. In addition, there are track-mounted chippers, dump trucks, horizontal grinders to chip the slash, a snow blower that blows the chips back into the forest, and a hydro seeder to spray native mulch onto the hillsides.
Foglio Logging Inc. of Florence, Oregon, is one of the companies that supplies both equipment and operators for the project. Trent Foglio says the company has four guys, three log loaders, and a truck driver currently working on the project.
“I also have three tracked machines, a lowboy trailer, and a log loader that’s on a rubber [tracked] carrier where it doesn’t tear up the blacktop when I need to move it from job site to job site. The company is very safety conscious and very well organized. A big part of that is having everything set up where everybody’s not waiting on another guy. Everyone has a handheld radio so they can communicate with you while you’re in the machine working. You stay in very good communication with everybody.”
Trent discusses one of the challenges of the highway jobs. “One of the big problems with all three projects is we’ve got 10 minutes to work, and then we have to let traffic go through. After the coast is clear, you go out, clear the highway, get the tree out of there, get it down in the ditch line in a safe place to process it, and get the lane back open to let the traffic through.”
Keeping It Safe
When Suulutaaq’s Joel Zeni needed guidance in the area of safety, he reached out to his former OSU professor/mentor, Jeffrey Wimer, president of Wimer Safety Consultation Inc. and respected forestry safety expert. A past president of Oregon Logging Conference and the Pacific Logging Congress, Jeff has been involved with logging his entire career and was manager of the OSU student logging training program since 2003.
“In addition to my teaching at OSU, I originally agreed to work a couple of days a week on the projects,” Jeff said. When Joel asked him to come on full time, he decided to retire from OSU early.
During the first six months, Jeff says he was responsible for safety on the whole project. Now he leads teams working on the Highway 22 closures. “I think the one key for being successful with this is that the vast number of people Joel has hired have logging backgrounds. Handling of the logs is probably the hardest part. Construction companies might have the equipment but without the experience, they wouldn’t know how to get up on slopes and deal with the logs. I would say its 80 percent logging and 20 percent construction.”
Jeff added, “I watched Joel when he was a student of mine – he was just going to skyrocket. I could see it. He oversees the entire Oregon division; they have confidence in him and let him run it. That said, I still think it’s the loggers that make it work. If it weren’t for the loggers, it would be a disaster.”
Taking on a Challenge
Projecting that the McKenzie OR-126 and the Estacada/Detroit OR-224 projects will be completed by the end of the year, with the Santiam Highway OR-22 continuing into 2022, Joel weighed in on the overall project thus far.
“I already knew how to fall trees, do traffic control, and I had people who knew how to climb, but what I didn’t know when we started was how to do all of that in a disaster,” Joel said. “Working with FEMA’s rules and regulations and dealing with all of their monitors who are watching over what we’re doing every day to make sure that we’re doing it the right way, has been a steep learning curve.”
Joe says there was extensive communication between everyone involved including legislators, agencies, residents, and the landowners whose property was damaged by the fires.
“However, because there are so many moving parts and pieces to the project, we had some environmental groups pretty upset because they believed ODOT was not being transparent.”
Joel solved that issue by having conversations with those who were concerned about the level of logging. “I brought them out and showed them different sites and asked them to tell me if we should leave this or that tree and take the chance that someone will get killed — or do we remove them? When they understood what was happening on a bigger scale than what you can see from the road, they were very understanding.”
In the matter of safety, there were a couple of instances where a branch hit a power line, but the teams have put in nearly 80,000 man-hours and the only project-related injury was when a cutter strained his back.
“I agree with Jeff that a big secret of our success has been the loggers, but I also credit the flaggers, the climbers, the dump trucks, the excavators, and everybody else that is making this work,” Joel said. “Without teamwork, we couldn’t do it.”
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