Getting the Moonlight cut up and out
After almost four years of frustration, local loggers and helicopter loggers are finally salvaging some value out of the big timber standing dead in the most severely burned areas of the 2007 Moonlight Fire.
Of special significance is the 40-year anniversary of the first-ever U.S. helicopter logging job, which was done in the same area.
Oregon companies like Erickson Air-Crane and Colombia Helicopters are back again, though with a newer crew and experience that includes many thousands of payloads and company expansions into global construction and firefighting.
Back during that first experimental helicopter logging job, Colombia President Wes Lematta and several members of his crew signed one of the helicopter tail blades and presented it to Bob and Margaret Cooke, who placed it in the Indian Valley Museum with local and regional newspaper clippings about the experimental logging project near Taylorsville.
Clippings are now located at the Plumas County Museum in Quincy, where Scott Lawson and Dan Elliott accessed them for their local history book about logging in Plumas County.
One of the clippings is a story about the late Doc Hatch, who was a Colombia Helicopters cutter on that first job, and was soon a cutting superintendent.
Another article ran in the Feather River Bulletin Thursday, Aug. 12, 1971, with a photo of then Forest Supervisor Lloyd Britton watching as the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane helicopter, leased by Erickson Air-Crane, was operated on the Plumas National Forest near Taylorsville.
Then U.S. Regional Forester Doug Leisz reported the helicopter loads were about 9 tons each, and pilots flew them one mile from the timber sale area to the landing.
He figured an average of 126,000 board feet of timber were airlifted daily with no need to build roads or skid logs.
Another article was on a full page cut from the Sacramento Bee. There was no date on the page, except for a handwritten “1970.”
Then staff writer Walt Wiley wrote a magazine-like account of the logging job, complete with “the twin-turbine whoosh of a giant helicopter” working over “steep, snowy hillsides.”
He interviewed Jack Erickson of Erickson Logging, then out of Marysville, who told him of a previous failed experiment with helicopter logging in Oregon.
Erickson’s subsidiary, Plumas Lumber Company, bought the timber sale at a price he initially thought was too high to make helicopter logging profitable.
Instead of the 9-ton payloads reported by Leisz, Timber Chief John Murray and helicopter pilot Bob Brown told Wiley that they averaged about 8,000 pounds — the payload size needed to make the job profitable.
Brown described how a sling was used, and woods workers told him about the chokers, “special wire rope nooses,” they used to attach logs to the sling.
They also told Wiley that they couldn’t wear their hard hats — they had to wear bright orange caps and gloves instead, so they would be more visible to pilots and so their hard hats wouldn’t turn into missiles blown by the 70-mph rotor wash from the helicopter.
Workers today find that hardhat story hard to believe, but then hard hats have been improved and adapted to better fit the jobs, just like Erickson adapted his first old military helicopter with a vantage point, now a bubble, off the left side for the pilot to look down out of.
Today, the size of the payloads and the time it takes to get them from the sale area to the landing are important to the success or failure of a job.
The job is more dangerous today, too, because the logs have been standing dead for almost four years.
Huge chunks of bark and wood debris can be seen falling from the logs while they are aloft between pickup and delivery.
“That can kill someone,” said Joe Smailes, Ecosystem Operations team leader on the Mt. Hough Ranger District.
He drove this reporter out for a tour of the main service landing about two weeks after work started on the Cairn Multi Product Fire Salvage Sale.
Pew Forest Products owner Randy Pew said that it was his son, Jared, who figured out how to make this job profitable.
Many details that seem small to others are what made it possible.
Cedar logs, for example, are taken to Oroville and Lincoln for the best process by truckers who live down there.
The same goes for some top grade logs that are taken up to southern Oregon.
And the people at Collins Pine pitched in too by offering a higher price to make it work.
Safety is another huge concern, and Jared Pew spent some time trying to find a company that could do the grapple-style helicopter logging.
With the wood being dead so long, it is more dangerous to work with, and he did not want choker setters working underneath airborne logs.
Instead, loggers place a different sort of line on the tree that the pilot can see and hook with a grapple.
And the trees are color-coded with tags so the pilot knows if he can pick up more than one tree at a time.
It takes only seconds for the pilot to hover over the trees and hook onto them, and back at the landing one can see the cable wiggle in the split second it takes for him to let go of them again.
Each turn over Lights Creek Road that day took only about 90 seconds, even with two trees on the line.
Pew was the only bidder on the sale, which includes more than 60 million board feet of timber.
It took two teams to get this sale going: the Forest Service and Pew.
The Forest Service first had to perform all the requisite studies and courtroom battles with environmental groups like the John Muir Project.
Then Pew’s son Jared spent countless hours tracking changes in the lumber market and studying helicopter logging and myriad other details, all the while trying to figure out a way to make the job pay enough to employ the number of people it would take to get it done.
Pew hired Colombia Helicopters, and its people, in turn, hired one of Erickson’s Canadian subsidiary ships.
Pew figures he has about 15 workers at the landings, six of his own trucks, nine other trucks, and about 15 fallers altogether, all mostly local employees, some of whom can stop their trucks at home for lunch on the way to the mill or back.
Pew remembers driving up to see that first helicopter job 40 years ago, when he was still in high school.
In a logging family already, neither he nor his late father ever thought helicopter logging would work.
He was amazed back then, and he is again.
“It’s a minor miracle that we’re even here and able to work,” Randy Pew said. “I think it’s one of the biggest things that has happened here in a long time.”
Small, more rotted trees will be left behind, and there will be untouched patches of big timber where there are still live trees.
There will be a lot of firewood to harvest in this area when the job is over in the fall, Smailes said.
This brings to an end the timber harvesting jobs on public lands in the 2007 Moonlight and Wheeler fire areas, although there may be a small job near Wilcox.
About the helicopters
Colombia Helicopters was founded in 1957 by World War II veteran Wes Lematta, who used the GI Bill to finish his flight training before purchasing a used Hiller 12B with his brother Eddie.
By 1960 they were awarded a power-company contract to place wood poles, which is how he developed the direct visual operational control method still used today — they lean out the left window so they can see what they are doing with the long attachment lines and conduct an operation with safety and precision.
Erickson Air-Crane was a new company in 1971, started with a leased S-64 Skycrane helicopter by Erickson Lumber Company owner Jack Erickson, a second-generation logger.
It was Erickson who first developed a way to make helicopter logging economical, after less successful efforts by people in other countries.
Erickson has expanded operations ever since and now boasts three international subsidiaries and a base of operations in Central Point, Ore., that employs more than 500 people.