A wildfire spared Toby Rodrigues’ home last month when it roared through the gated community where he lives near Dishman Hills Natural Area.
He was not so fortunate with his tree-covered acreage. The blaze left many of the Ponderosa pines on his property with charred trunks and brown tops.
So last week a squat, rumbling vehicle grabbed pines in its powerful pincers, snapping them off and carrying the trees upright to dump them in a pile. The “feller-buncher” made short work of the timber between his house and the road.
“We’re losing all of our privacy up to our house,” said Rodrigues, 35.
Like other property owners in the gated Park Hills/Park Meadows neighborhood, where the Valleyview wildfire burned nine houses and damaged the land of dozens of other residents, Rodrigues has turned to local loggers out of necessity. They must deal with the dead wood before it is infested with bark beetles or fungus, becomes a fall danger or loses all of its already diminished value.
“We cannot be made whole from our loss,” Rodrigues said. “You can’t buy time, because that’s what it’s going to take for these trees to (grow) back to what they were.”
And while affluent landowners live on the forested hillside for privacy more than profit from the harvest of their timber, the depressed lumber market is a double-whammy. The weakened housing market has slashed demand for boards, driving prices down.
“The worst case is people are basically breaking even,” said Brian Vrablick, a forester with Northwest Management Inc. “It really comes down to the size of the trees that they had on their property. The people who had more larger trees, the return to them is greater and they’re going to see hundreds of dollars and thousands of dollars.
Nationally, the average price of framing lumber for July was off 37 percent from the same time in 2004, according to industry publication Random Lengths.
After the fire, Washington Department of Natural Resources officials and contractors briefed homeowners on their options. Many owners elected to sign up with the Deer Park office of Northwest Management, a company that helps landowners run their forests. It will guide them through salvaging and selling wood, cleaning up and eventually replanting.
Others in the fire area decided to do the work themselves or hire loggers like Cheney-based Turley Logging and Timberland Management Inc.
“This is a tragic exercise we have to go through, but we’re learning from it,” said Harry Sladich, head of the development’s homeowners association. “I’m going to thin out some of my property to make sure that if, God forbid, this happened again, we’re going to fare a lot better.”
If that type of thinning had been done earlier, damage from the wildfire likely would have been less severe. Strong winds blew flames and embers southeast, consuming more than 1,000 acres. The firefighting effort lasted more than a week and cost at least $3 million.
Spokane County lost more than $5 million from its tax rolls because of damage to structures, said County Assessor Ralph Baker. Neither the assessor’s office nor the DNR had estimates for total damage from the fire. Yet landowners probably lost at least $1,000 an acre in potential timber value, said Guy Gifford, a prevention forester with the DNR.
The fire was “very unfortunate timing” in the view of Alan Hawson, a rural forester with the Spokane County Conservation District. Hawson visited the development about a month before the blaze to offer advice on guarding homes against wildfire.
“A majority of them, I’m sure, were very interested in doing something, and the primary thing was just reducing the fuel loading around their residences, which means probably doing some thinning and pruning,” he said.
“If all of them had done that, I would say probably 90-plus percent of them that burned probably would not have. There’s no way to know for sure.”
But for those with burned timber, the process begins with foresters marking with paint trees to be removed, leaving some as snags for wildlife habitat. Vrablick, the forester, expects salvage to take about six weeks for the more than 400 acres he is contracted to log. Most of the area had previously been logged, he said.
“You have to individually look at every tree and determine if they have enough life, a vigorous crown to sustain themselves,” said Turley Logging owner Tom Turley. “We’re looking for about a third of the tree and a lot of vigorous green.”
In summer heat, Ponderosa pines get blue stains five to six weeks after a fire, Turley said.
“In most cases the wood is salvageable, but the timeframe is the critical stipulation,” he said. “Once it gets that blue stain, the material is not of saw-log quality. So it’s a big rush to get it salvaged in time.”
Fire salvage does involve more waste than normal logging, Vrablick said. But much of the material can be used, foresters said, by turning smaller trees into pulp, which has seen a price upswing, or burning slash at waste-to-energy plants.
Turley welcomes the work. “We’ve downsized dramatically with the economy the way it is,” from about 14 employees to five, he said.
“When the housing futures drop off and interest rates go up, logging is basically the first on the food chain.”
Once logging is done, many will look at reseeding grass or replanting trees. But would the forest regrow on its own? Natural regeneration “should do quite well,” Gifford said, but planting can “help you get to your objectives quicker.”
“In about 15 years, you’ll probably have too many trees again,” he said.
Some destroyed houses might spring up again, too. At least two owners plan to rebuild, while others are less enthusiastic, Sladich said. The president of the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, Sladich did not lose his house in the fire.
“It’s a model for any future disasters about how this community came together and said, ‘Our desire is to get this development back to the full beauty of what it was,’ and everyone had the health of the land as a critical goal,” he said.
“It’s so hidden up there that most people would never know if we did anything, but we would know.”