POMEROY, Wash. – The wildfire was hot enough to make portions of the forest floor as sterile as the face of the moon, but in other areas, green grass already is bursting through the ash.
Less than three months after the 52,000-acre School fire was extinguished, the forest’s slow rebirth has begun. But a proposal to salvage some of the burned timber has prompted new heat.
Residents of this agriculture-intensive community have expressed strong support for making use of the burned trees, but environmental groups vow to fight the plan, saying the logging would only harm these blackened foothills of the Blue Mountains.
“Salvage logging after a fire is like mugging a burn victim,” said Mike Petersen, executive director of the Spokane-based Lands Council. “That’s not restoration – that’s further damage.”
Logging already has begun on portions of the 13,000 acres of private land that burned, said Dean Burton, chairman of the Garfield County commissioners.
Some homes also are being rebuilt. The fire burned 109 residences and outbuildings, making it the nation’s most devastating wildfire of the year.
Pomeroy’s economy remains firmly anchored in farming – the town’s welcome sign boasts that the local FFA chapter is the state’s largest. This helps explain why many local residents are urging the U.S. Forest Service to move quickly to salvage burned logs before they become useless due to fungi or beetles, said Burton, a retired utility worker.
“I think it would be really sad, and the people of this town would think it was really sad, if that timber wasn’t salvaged,” he said.
District ranger Monte Fujishin said logging portions of the burned area would help pay for reseeding and restoration in other parts of the forest. Project planning is under way, but Fujishin said a final decision won’t be made until July. This would put logging on a tight timeline – blue stain fungus begins to show up about a year after a fire.
“Hopefully, we can get a lot of value before it’s gone,” Fujishin said.
Logging also is being proposed for portions of 12,000 acres of charred state land, but it would be put on a much faster timetable than the federal work would be. Cutting could begin as early as next month, said Kevin Robinette, regional wildlife program manager for the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Most of the work calls for removing logs using helicopters, he said, thus minimizing disturbance of the soil.
The fire started on Aug. 5, when a tree fell on a power line near a forested slope about 16 miles south of Pomeroy. The forest was bone-dry. Within minutes, the fire had grown to 50 acres, but it wasn’t until the next day when the fire showed its true strength.
Winds drove flames up steep, chimneylike walls, and the fire soon began burning 35 acres a minute, much of it in the Willow Springs inventoried roadless area. The fire spread more quickly than deer and elk could run, and at least 300 of the animals burned to death.
Local farmers used their tractors to plow firebreaks around homes, but nothing could stop flames and flying embers. The massive plume could be seen from town; each afternoon, the towering white cloud built. Inside the cloud was a mass of superheated air and swirling embers.
Eventually, the plume would collapse under its own weight, sending gale-force torrents of hot embers across several drainages at a time, Fujishin said.
The fire’s fastest path was over thick forest in the Willow Springs roadless area, Fujishin said. Nearly 70 years of fire suppression had set the stage for a burn, he said. That’s exactly why the area was scheduled for a 15,000-acre thinning project, which was expected to start a year from now.
“It would have treated all that country,” Fujishin said. “But we were a year late.”
Fujishin pointed to other areas in the forest where thinning had occurred. In those places, the fire slowed and was controlled.
“Forest management, we think, accomplished its task,” Fujishin said, adding moments later, “But when Mother Nature decides to take out some country, she can do just about what she wants.”
Petersen, of the Lands Council, said salvage logging might be needed to remove potentially hazardous logs near roadways, but he said burned forests are best left to heal on their own and the Forest Service would be better off focusing its time and money on other unburned parts of the forest near communities.
Logging equipment and even footprints can disturb the soil in burned areas and make it more prone to widespread erosion after rain or snowmelt, Petersen said.
Much of the burned area is in the Tucannon River watershed, which includes prime spawning habitat for migratory trout and salmon at risk of extinction.
“How can building new roads and dragging logs really restore an area?” Petersen asked.
Salvage logging remains a flash-point issue between environmentalists and the timber industry.
Last spring, dozens of protesters were arrested in western Oregon when logging began on about 20,000 acres of land burned in the 2002 Biscuit fire. The logging had been delayed by numerous legal battles, prompting complaints from the timber industry, which said the delays essentially left the logs useless for market.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan coalition of Northwest lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., introduced federal legislation to speed up salvage harvests.
The idea flies in the face of science, said Gary Macfarlane, an activist with Friends of the Clearwater, of Moscow, Idaho.
“It’s a disaster. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Macfarlane said. “The impacts are going to be tremendous. All the research proves this is one of the worst things you can do for a watershed and soils.”
Friends of the Clearwater, based about 60 miles from Pomeroy, is the closest environmental group to the burned area, Macfarlane said.
Pomeroy’s distance from big cities on the coast will make it easier for a large salvage project to occur without much media or activist attention, Macfarlane said. “This would be getting huge attention over there. Huge.”
But that’s just fine with many local residents, said Virgil Klaveano, a farmer and Garfield County commissioner. Local residents support salvaging value from the burned trees, but Klaveano also said they would not stand for any project that would harm the Tucannon River. In some areas, the logging can be done safely, he said. “Most everybody supports that.”
The Forest Service has spent $500,000 to cover portions of the burned area with straw and mulch, but Klaveano said he worries the spring snowmelt could send torrents of mud and ash into the Tucannon River.
Whatever legal battles might lie ahead, district ranger Fujishin said he’s just glad the fire’s out and even happier that no residents or firefighters were killed. The only reported injuries were minor and resulted from several bee stings and the rollover of an all-terrain vehicle.
“The most miraculous thing was no loss of life,” Fujishin said.
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