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The Chips Fire “burned” more than 75,000 acres of land in a little over a month last summer. The number of acres burned is misleading, however, as the terrain encompassed within the Chips Fire boundaries experienced varying degrees of burn severity.
Just 20 percent of the area was severely burned, according to Mike Donald, Mount Hough District Ranger, in what foresters call a “mosaic burn.”
The Chips Fire burn area contains millions of board feet of salvageable timber. Efforts are currently underway to harvest some of it.
A multi-pronged approach has been implemented as part of the Chips Fire restoration process on the Plumas National Forest, Donald reported.
Of highest importance is the Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation process, which began even while the fire was burning.
BAER includes land, road, trail, protection and safety treatments as well as ongoing monitoring.
Approximately 80 – 90 percent of treatments involve roadside hazard and safety. Treatments include removing hazard trees, repairing roads and culverts, and treating for erosion.
Now that the emergency work is nearly complete, the next steps are to salvage burned trees, recoup financial losses and begin restoration work.
According to Joe Smailes, ecosystem operations staff officer at Mount Hough Ranger District, most fire-damaged trees have a “shelf life” of two years. If trees are not harvested within that timeframe, bugs and decay set in and the tree is no longer a viable lumber source.
This makes time of the essence. In the aftermath of the Chips Fire, Donald conducted community meetings to find out what action residents wanted most.
The Forest Service received approval to conduct four tiers of salvage: Tier 1 is easiest tractor salvage; Tier 2 is easiest skyline salvage; Tier 3 is easiest helicopter salvage, next most difficult tractor salvage and next most difficult skyline salvage; and Tier 4 is most difficult skyline and helicopter salvage.
Public response indicated a preference for tiers 1 and 2 to be conducted for one year, then to resume management of the forest to prevent cataclysmic fires in the future.
Roadside hazard removal
A categorical exclusion has been granted for the Chips Roadside Hazard Removal. The exclusion allows the harvest of 250 acres of hazard trees.
The Ohio roadside hazard timber sale of 1,900 MBF (thousand board feet; the M stands for 1,000) was sold to Sierra Pacific Industries for $218,000. Salvage efforts will begin soon, Smailes said.
The Fork roadside hazard timber sale of 1,600 MBF was sold to Pearson Logging, of Quincy, for $156,000.
This small salvage timber sale was limited to businesses of fewer than 25 employees. Pearson was the high bidder and began logging in March with a crew of three to cut roadside hazard trees on Seneca Road near Canyon Dam.
Forest Service timber markers marked hazard trees following strict guidelines: trees must lie within 150 feet of the roadway (one tree length), be significantly burned in the crown, have a 10.1-inch or greater diameter and adhere to other critical guidelines.
Once the trees are marked, loggers start the work of felling, cutting, skidding, loading and delivering logs to the mill.
A Plumas National Forest timber sale administrator — in this case, Curtis Yocum — monitors logging activity.
Yocum estimates the quantity of board feet (1 board foot is the volume of 1 foot by 1 foot by 1 inch) that each tree provides using a formula that involves measuring the tree’s diameter 4.5 feet from the ground and the merchantable height of each tree, the latter using an instrument called a range finder.
He ensures that each stump is no more than 12 inches high (to maximize the lumber sale potential), and monitors the branding and painting of all logs, which allows accurate tracking and recording.
Yocum also monitors the logging operation for safety, environmental and other compliance issues.
National Environmental Protection Act
Before any of the salvage work can begin, National Environmental Protection Act environmental assessments must be conducted, submitted and approved.
The first NEPA entity includes the roadside hazard removal and a second categorical exclusion — the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Right of Way Powerline Corridor fire salvage timber sale.
The second NEPA entity, the Chipmunk Recovery and Restoration Project, includes 1,788 acres of roadside hazard removal, 3,675 acres of interior fire salvage removal and 5,464 acres of site prep and restoration.
Three commercial fire salvage timber sales are slated to come out of the Chipmunk project: the Skinner, Dutch and Mosquito fire salvage timber sales.
Financial damages to date
Jerry Sipe, director of the county’s environmental health department, reported county government loss claims of nearly a quarter-million dollars resulting from the Chips Fire.
The county’s Alliance for Workforce Development reported that as of Oct. 22, 2012, 50 businesses in the county reported losses of more than $1.6 million.
PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said the utility company suffered $2.5 million in losses due to the Chips Fire.
There have been a few advantages as a result of the fire. First off, logging-related employment has risen.
Salvage logging will provide raw timber for mills, which were experiencing a shortage due to a short winter and wet conditions (heavy logging equipment is banned on moist ground due to environmental concerns).
Secondly, some forests experienced healthy burns, according to District Ranger Donald. Fire is historically a natural component of the Sierra ecosystem, cleaning out crowded trees and creating a more diverse habitat. Restoration work also provides employment opportunities.
For more information on the Chips Fire statistics and salvage operations, go to fs.usda.gov/main/plumas.
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