September and October 2006



Salvage Logging in the Biscuit Fire

By Tim Jewett

Matt Demain inspecting old growth timber killed in the Biscuit Fire.

The ghostly, charred skeletons of old growth disappear into the fog shrouding the rugged mountains of Southwest Oregon. These blackened giants are the most noticeable remains of the 2002 Biscuit Fire. But, beneath the singed bark of these dead Douglas fir trees, lies a rare treasure, golden-red rings of old-growth wood.

The old growth on those hillsides hasn’t been available to loggers in recent times because of over-harvesting and more stringent environmental regulations protecting the Northern spotted owl and murrelets. “But the Biscuit Fire changed all that,” says Matt Demain, owner of Matt Demain Cutting Inc.

Following the inferno that burned nearly a half-million acres of the Siskiyou National Forest, the Forest Service auctioned over 75 million board feet of timber to local timber and plywood mills. Of that amount, two-thirds of the timber was old growth — referred to by the service as ‘late succession reserves.’ Representing less than one percent of the burn area, the salvage sales were made available to aid the economic recovery of the region.

Salvaging old growth

As the supply of large trees has diminished, so has the number of men who can cut them. Demain is among a dwindling number of fallers who can still properly harvest a tree up to eight feet in diameter. “My job is to save as much of the tree as I can,” he says. “I find the longest ground that I can and put as many trees as possible in that long ground.”

In 2005 Demain was contacted by East Fork Lumber Company of Norway, Ore. That year he felled over 5 million board feet of salvaged timber. He expects to do another 1.5 million board feet this year, before completing his salvage contract and moving on to other jobs.

Techniques for tarred timber

Salvage logging has unique challenges and requires different techniques of the timber fallers. One reason is because burned timber is harder wood. Demain’s theory is that it’s caused by fire sucking moisture out of the timber.

To cut that harder wood, Demain wants the biggest motor he can get. His felling saw is driven by a Husqvarna 3120 and is outfitted with a 60-inch bar. Demain prefers the Stihl semi-skip chain because it cuts through the hard wood more smoothly, with less chatter. His bucking saw is a Husky 395 with a 36-inch bar and an Oregon Chain Company full-skip chain.

Added Safety concerns

Demain and his crew are also keenly aware of the additional dangers of salvage logging, in particular, burned branches and treetops that can break off and fall. Demain has found, over the past two salvage cutting seasons, that smaller limbs in the tree tops burn and fall down through other limbs and get hung up. Wind can get the trees rocking back and forth, shaking that debris loose.

In the Biscuit Fire, the canopy of the trees got so hot that the tops are now very brittle and can easily break off and fall. “We’ve had tops of trees break off and come over backwards,” says Demain. “You’ve got to be really careful. In fact, he and his crew did not cut trees on the day of this interview because of gusty winds. “I’m not going to put anyone on my crew in harm’s way,” he says. “There’s always another day.”

Demain expects to fell 1.5 million feet of salvage timber in 2007 at the Biscuit site. That is down from 5 million board feet in 2005.

Hauling it out

When Demain’s cutting work is done on this salvage unit, the job of getting the logs to the landing is taken over by Wayne Wood Logging Inc. His five-man, skyline operation uses a Skagit BU80, slack-line, 90-foot tower equipped with a Danabo SC20 drum car carriage, because they are better able to handle the large, old-growth logs. A 235 Cat shovel loads them onto the trucks.

Due to Forest Service regulations, Wood’s salvage logging operation in the Biscuit Fire area requires additional work. To prevent ground disturbance, fewer skidding roads are allowed and one end of the log must be suspended.

“It costs me a lot of money and time, because I have to set up the yarder more times (16 times instead of just twice) to get five million board feet of timber,” says Wood.

But most U.S. Forest Service regulations governing salvage logging, aren’t much different from general logging, although they do require more large, woody debris be left behind to encourage forest and wildlife regeneration.

Coming to a close

This year, there is some urgency to falling the salvage timber. Now, four years after the fire, the wood is in danger of losing its commercial value.

“My guess is that this is the last season,” said Steve Cornell, the U.S. Forest Service timber sale administrator monitoring Demain’s work.

“It’s more brittle this year and more prone to breakage,” says Demain. On a bucked log, five-feet in diameter, Demain points to a dark ring of stain just under the bark where the sap rot is creeping into the wood.

Over Three Decades Felling

Matt Demain is 51 years old and has been cutting timber for 24 years. He started working in the woods at age 18, right out of high school. Athird generation forest worker, he is the first in his family to be a faller.

However, the father of three said he doesn’t encourage his children to go into the business. “Tramping up and down these steep hills is hard on the body,” he said, rubbing the pain in his knees. “And the business has changed. The wages have not kept up with the overhead.”

Demain spent the first decade of his career working his way up through the ranks of logging crews. He toiled as a choker setter, rigging slinger, the chaser on the landing, and eventually as the hook tender, supervising the crews. Always intrigued by the more glamorous work of the timber cutters, Demain was frustrated by a system that offered few opportunities.

“It was a tough industry to break into,” he said. “If you weren’t part of a family in the cutting business, it was difficult to get the skills.”

Persistence paid off when Demain was hired by John Campbell, a legendary oldgrowth faller. Demain bucked timber for two years with Campbell’s company before he actually got a chance to cut down his first old-growth tree.

Logging at the burn has required addition work. To prevent less ground disturbance, fewer skidder roads were allowed.

Today, Matt subcontracts a few other cutters to work with him in “sets”, one felling and one bucking the trees. With old growth not readily available, Demain cuts primarily green, standing 2nd growth trees. And, more recently, he’s branched into a more managerial role, working as a “bull buck” and supervising crews for other cutting companies.

Although the work is hard and the days are long, (Demain drives two and a half hours each morning to reach the salvage logging job site) the thrill is still there. Especially downing these enormous specimens. “It’s such an adrenaline rush,” Demain said. “You can’t imagine!”


This page was last updated on Sunday, January 28, 2007