Post Fire Restoration
This is something that a collaborative group in Washington State came up with following the fires of 2015. The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition (NEWFC) had been discussing what to do if a big fire came to the Colville National Forest. The group has developed areas for active management, areas designed with a focus on restoration, and areas that were to be managed for conservation purposes. Up to and including wilderness. That meant there was a good sense of where to conduct salvage sales after a fire. This was a good approach, but there were flaws.
Language does matter. It especially matters when a group is trying to establish and maintain trust between individuals that had not historically been in the same room, let alone publicly agreed on anything. It became clear that the term “salvage” was a problem. It seems harmless enough, but it’s not and here’s why. The term has come to mean salvaging economic value at the cost of all other values. This hasn’t necessarily been accurate, but it is the way many conservation groups have come to see it and how some of the public views it.
NEWFC started talking about taking a restoration approach after the fire. This means that the focus is on restoring the forest first, but also accounting for the economic value of the burnt trees to pay for the work. The premise is simple. Get out on the ground and survey the situation. Figure out what needs to be done to get the land back into a healthy state. Can work be done to stabilize slopes by placing logs in places that limits sedimentation into streams? Are there wildlife considerations that will help enhance the habitat once the forest starts to recover? Are there alterations to the road systems that will help? These things are important to consider when balancing the various needs and values placed on public lands, specifically the Forest Service lands.
Derek Churchill from the University of Washington was asked to help build a science based model that could be replicated elsewhere. This project started as a 250-acre categorical exclusion so assumptions could be tested. Vaagen Bros took the degradation risk of the logs to move the project forward even though the project wouldn’t start until late 2016, about 14 months after the fire was out. The hope is to create a process that can be adopted all over the country at a large scale immediately following a catastrophic wildfire. The goal is to improve the landscape, and not let it go to waste. The value must be used as an important tool in getting the necessary work done to restore the landscape into a functioning forest again.
Vaagen Bros Lumber in Colville has been using burned logs for years. As a mill, special measures need to be taken to get the charred bark off. Introducing an additional counter rotating ring to the de-barker has allowed the mill to get all the bark off the logs. This allows for the sale of clean chips and keeps the abrasive char away from the saws and chipper knives. It has become apparent that getting the logs as soon after the fire as possible helps recover the most value. Each site and burn is a different, but if the trees were killed by the flames and the bark was only charred on the outside the value can be captured for up to 3 years after the fire. As the tree is standing dead it starts to lose its moisture and crack. It happens from the top and works its way down.
Indications are that this project has been a success. NEWFC will review the project once the snow melts. A final report and recommendation from NEWFC with the help of Derek Churchill will ultimately determine if this project was successful. If the project proves to be successful, it could start a new chapter in how forests are managed after wildfires. Vaagen Bros is committed to working with conservation groups to create solutions that are eco-friendly in both ecology and economics. Restoring areas after a fire is one of the ways the company continues to honor its commitment to the forests, the community, and the environment.