The Pacific Northwest had many fires last year. For some, forest fires conjure images of trees completely vaporized by fire. But crown fires often move through a forest fairly rapidly, consuming tree needles and fine branches and leaving charred snags. Chopping into those trees often reveals sound wood. Salvage sales can be set up in response to anything that kills trees, including insects, disease, fire, or storms. For example, many forest owners in Bonner and Kootenai counties will be considering salvage for trees downed in wind storms in November and December of 2015. Salvage sales have different criteria depending on what killed or is killing the trees, the time of year, and markets available for what might be salvaged. Here we will focus primarily on salvaging trees killed by wildfire.
Beware of falling trees. Trees killed in a fire may be unstable. As you assess your property, be aware of this hazard and wear a hard hat. Felling trees near frequently used trails or roads on your property reduces this hazard. If you drop trees for safety purposes, felling them parallel to slope will help catch eroded sediments generated by the fire and keep them from entering streams.
Is the wood good? First, check with your mills to see how much they are paying for what kinds of burn-salvaged timber – it may or may not be worth hauling to the mill. The woody parts of the tree that do not make it into boards are typically sold by the mill for paper chips. If the char is limited to the bark, the price reduction may be small, since the char is removed with the bark. But if the fire gets into the wood, the chips may not be sellable for paper. Carefully manufacturing logs to leave out pieces with burned wood can help make logs more useable.
Salvage sooner than later. Dead trees’ wood quality degrades over time. Generally, the sooner you can harvest fire-killed trees, the better. Landowners often ask how much time they have to salvage trees before they “turn blue.” Blue stain is a fungus that turns wood blue to grey. While blue stain does not degrade wood quality, most mills still deduct for the discoloration. Blue stain is commonly introduced by bark beetles, which feed in the phloem – the green layer between the bark and the wood of the tree. Since burned trees were not killed by bark beetles, the wood may not be blue, but eventually, the trees will attract wood boring insects, which may introduce blue stain. Trees stressed but not killed by fire may attract bark beetles. Such trees may stain fairly quickly.
The speed at which wood “blues” is variable, probably depending on moisture or other local environmental factors. To avoid price reductions for blue stain, get beetle-attacked trees to the mill as soon as possible. Beyond blue stain, pouch fungus, another decay fungus brought in by bark beetles and wood borers, has more structural consequence, because it decays the sapwood. To prevent decay from pouch fungus, try to salvage beetle-killed trees in less than two years. Removing trees killed by Douglas fir beetle before May of the following year, prevents beetles from those trees emerging and killing additional trees.
Is it dead yet? In addition to trees clearly killed by fire, some trees will be partially burned or stressed by the fire, especially at fire edges and where the fire stayed on the ground surface. Whether a tree will die is always a judgement call, but different species are more likely to survive fire damage than others. We have an excellent extension publication on post-fire responses titled “After the Burn”
(gotohttp://www.uidaho.edu/extension/forestry/content/fire/ecology and click on “After the Burn:
Assessing and Managing Your Forestland After a Wildfire” under “Publications”). In addition to a variety of other post-fire information, the publication has tables to help you assess whether a tree will survive some degree of scorch.
Roads. If you are building or re-establishing a road for a timber sale, you might want to err on the side of larger culverts, or better yet bridges on larger stream crossings. If a large amount of land area has burned in your watershed, drainage flows and sediment loads may increase, which can plug stream crossings. Larger drainage devices reduce the risk of expensive and environmentally damaging road failures.
Keeping biological legacies. Just because you can take a tree to a mill doesn’t mean you should, depending on your objectives. Fire is a normal part of western forest ecosystems. Forest plants and trees have adapted to fire in many different ways. So have wildlife species. For example, black-backed wood peckers specialize on burnt over forests.
If wildlife are important to you, leave some charred snags, especially trees with defects in log quality, such as forks, crook, or sweep. These trees will provide wildlife and soil benefits for decades or longer, while they are standing, after they fall, and as they decay into the ground. For more information, see “Managing Organic Debris for Forest Health” available at http://www.cals.uidaho.edu/ed-Comm/pdf/PNW/PNW0609.pdf.
Reforestation. Because of 100 years of fire exclusion, partial harvesting, and introduced diseases, many family forests’ species composition has shifted from pines and larch to much heavier proportions of shade tolerant species such as Douglas-fir and grand fir.
Post fire is an occasion to restore species to the site that are ultimately more tolerant of drought, fire, insects and disease. Many shrubs and other plants are highly adapted to disturbance by fire. For example, since fires can volatilize nitrogen from a site, many of the first species to dominate a site after a fire (red-stem and slick leaf ceanothus, snowberry, alder) also fix nitrogen.
These plants can help stabilize slopes, restore nutrients, and feed wildlife. But shrubs and grasses can also impede reforestation, especially on dry sites. Establish tree seedlings promptly to give them a head start.
Many weed species can take advantage of the bare soils created by a fire. Have logging equipment thoroughly cleaned before it comes to your property, to remove as much weed seed as possible. Monitor the timber sale and associated access roads after the sale for weeds and control new patches promptly. Seeding roadsides with grasses and other plants reduces erosion, suppresses weeds, and provides forage for livestock and big game. Note that grass is a very effective competitor for moisture, especially on drier sites.
If establishing new tree seedlings is a primary objective, limit grass seeding to areas where significant soil erosion may be an issue. Salvage: an opportunity to accomplish other objectives. Do you have a forest management plan for your property? Be sure to carry out the salvage in concert with that plan, so roads and harvests are consistent with your long-range goals.
Design new roads and skid trails to be useful for future harvests and other activities on your property. Take advantage of equipment, expertise, or income associated with a timber sale to address your other values for the property. For example, if you already have a Cat coming out to skid logs, also build or maintain other roads as needed, since you are already paying the cost to get the equipment to the site.
Wood is not the only value that can be salvaged from fire. People who live in areas with extensive fires may see people coming to harvest edible wild mushrooms. Some species of morels come in abundantly the first couple of years after a wildfire, especially with adequate moisture to support their growth.
If you do not charge people to harvest on your land, you are generally not legally liable for any accidents they might have. But if you want revenue, you should have some sort of written contract that clearly spells out legal liabilities and insurance requirements, just as you would for a timber sale.
Just like some deer and elk hunters, commercial mushroom hunters may not always be clear where property boundaries lie, especially where private and public forests co-mingle. If mushroom harvesters trespass on your land, contact your county sheriff’s office. English is not the first language of some commercial mushroom harvesters. Your county sheriff’s office may have already made arrangements with interpreters to help them interact with commercial mushroom harvesters.
Taxes. If you have been keeping good records on your forest management, the damage you suffered may qualify as a “casualty loss.” For more information, check the National Timber Tax website, http://timbertax.org – type “fire” into the search engine.
Assistance. To help you plan and contract a salvage sale, it is wise to seek assistance from a professional forester, especially if you are deciding on trees which may or may not be near death. If someone claiming to be a logger or forester knocks on your door, and seems to imply every tree with some brown needles will die shortly, ask for credentials and check with a reputable forester to assess the actual threat before cutting trees.
Limited technical forestry assistance is available from Forest Practice Advisors with the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL). For more comprehensive assistance, consulting foresters offer timber inventory, timber sale administration, tree planting, and many other services for a fee. As your representative, the consultant’s success depends on keeping you satisfied by getting top prices for your logs while meeting your land management goals. Make sure you confirm the consultant fee before agreeing to the work, call references, and check credentials.
Conclusion. Fire has always lived large in western forests’ ecology and management. It is heartbreaking to have trees killed by fire on your property, but our forests are relatively adapted to fire, and with some prompt attention you can sometimes salvage significant value and put your forest on back on track to meet your management objectives – sometimes on a better trajectory than it was originally on.
Chris Schnepf is an area extension educator – forestry – for the University of Idaho in Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai and Benewah counties. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.