A logging machine moved across a Tuolumne County hillside last week, felling blackened trees at a rate of nearly 1,000 a day.
Salvage logging has begun on the Rim fire, an early step in a restoration effort that will take many decades.
But the task at hand goes far beyond the 250,000 acres of timber and brush that have burned in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. The Rim fire has renewed calls to better manage forests all over the Sierra Nevada so they can resist fire while providing timber, habitat, water and recreation.
"Otherwise, the result will be more Rim fires," said Steve Brink, a vice president at the California Forestry Association in Sacramento. "And the sad thing is, they will be common up and down the Sierra."
He spoke Thursday on a tour bus making its way out Cottonwood Road to a portion of the burn near Cherry Lake. It was chartered by the Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment, which long has promoted logging as a way to thin timber stands dense with fuel.
The group often has clashed with environmentalists, but many of the latter agree in general on the need for salvage logging and replanting on much of the burn.
"Nearly everyone is staggered by the magnitude of the fire and by the magnitude of the need," John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, wrote in an email last week.
The fire, the third largest in the state's history, got national attention because of its Yosemite connection. But what happened has special meaning to San Joaquin Valley residents who value the Sierra as a place to camp and fish, and as a source of water and timber.
The blaze is believed to have started from a hunter's campfire near the Clavey River on Aug. 17. It roared up the brushy canyon slopes and into the timberlands, some of them plantations a few decades old, some of them mature stands. "It was burning in every direction," Brink said. "It was throwing embers up to a mile. We haven't seen that kind of fire behavior before."
The perimeter has grown little in the past three weeks, but 595 firefighters remained on the lines Friday to handle spot fires and other tasks.
The suppression cost has reached $125.8 million. Brink said the recovery could add $200 million to $300 million to the bill.
Visit to the moonscape
The Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment got rare permission to get inside the still-closed fire area for the tour.
The visitors saw large expanses where the flames wiped out nearly all of the vegetation, along with areas with low to moderate scarring and a prospect for faster recovery.
They watched the logging machine at work on land that Sierra Pacific Industries owns within the national forest boundary. Salvage logging on private and public land will produce raw material for sawmills in volumes that have yet to be determined, but likely will be huge.
Sierra Pacific had at least some level of damage on about 16,000 acres, a small percentage of its land holdings around Northern California.
The machine on display Thursday was a feller-buncher. It grasps each tree at the base, shears it off and lays it on the ground for other machines that knock off the branches and load the logs into a truck.
The machines work fast but are light on the soil, said Mike Albrecht, president of Sierra Resource Management, the Jamestown-based company that supplied the equipment and operators.
"They're all professionally trained people," he said. "They've got to be, to get through a mess like this."
Feller-bunchers work on small and midsize trees. Old-fashioned chain saws will take down the bigger ones.
The national forest launched its salvage effort last week, starting with dead trees that are a hazard to roads and power lines. Still to come are trees that had been part of the long-term green timber supply but now will go to market in a hurry.
The U.S. Forest Service plans to get its salvage done within two years, to prevent the cracking that can make the timber useless for sawmills.
Sierra Pacific plans to finish within a year, said Tim Tate, district manager for the company.
He added that some trees that still look green could have hidden damage that will doom them.
The logging is regulated on private land by the state and on public land by the Forest Service, but the rules are less restrictive than with "green" timber. Congress this week will consider easing the federal process even more.
Hope for wildlife
Some of the dead trees will remain on the landscape, in some cases because of steep slopes or other conditions, in some cases to benefit wildlife.
Sierra Pacific plans to leave 5% to 10% of the trees, said Matt Reno, a wildlife biologist for the company. Some will be left standing, others lying on the ground.
Reno expects a population boom for some woodpecker species in a few years because the birds eat the bark beetles that invade dead timber.
Raptors can prey on rodents that find homes in the woody debris on the ground. Deer can thrive on fresh brush shoots that follow a fire, and that means food for mountain lions.
"As odd as it may seem, when you look at the bleak landscape, there is future habitat," Tate said.
Despite these short-term benefits, the Rim fire did tremendous damage to the mature stands where many species thrive. Buckley noted the pileated woodpecker, the northern flying squirrel, the northern goshawk, the California spotted owl and two weasel-like creatures, the marten and fisher.
The Tuolumne River Trust also is concerned about wildlife in the fire-charred portion of the watershed.
"Its size and intensity is certainly daunting," said Patrick Koepele, deputy executive director. "The loss of some of the old growth in the watershed is something you can't recover from for hundreds of years."
The flames left a mosaic of low, moderate and severe damage, as with many large fires.
But the Rim has one expanse of severe burning that, at nearly 40,000 acres, is the largest in the Sierra since the 1300s, the Associated Press reported. It based that on tree scar data cited by Jay Miller, a wildland fire ecologist for the Forest Service.
The salvage logging will be followed by planting of pine, fir and cedar seedlings in the next few years. Foresters hope they will grow into stands that can be thinned after about 35 years, producing logs while letting the remaining trees grow taller and more resistant to fire.
Brink said the work needs to start soon to keep the sites from being overwhelmed with brush.
Buckley also supports large-scale replanting, including young plantations where little ground preparation will be needed. "The honest truth is that for many broad areas of conifer forest that roasted under firestorm conditions in the Rim fire, there are now no surviving overstory trees to drop seeds to help a young, new forest to regrow," he said.
Some experts worry that the climate is warming and this elevation of the Sierra might not support as many conifers as before, even with the foresters' care. Many parts of the range might look like the shrubby mountains of Southern California, Forest Service ecologist Hugh Safford said.
Land managers also will try to prevent erosion during this winter's storms on the parts of the burned areas with moderate to severe soil damage.
Brink said this could damage roads that will be needed in 2014 to do the salvage logging and replanting. Erosion also could reduce water quality, a concern especially for San Francisco, whose current supply from just inside Yosemite does not need much treatment.
Inside the park
Under federal law, Yosemite takes a different approach to fire recovery than the national forest just west of it. Erosion controls are allowed, spokesman Scott Gediman said, but salvage logging is confined to dead trees that pose a risk to people or structures. And visitors will not see crews planting seedlings across the burned acreage. "Our general rule is to let the natural systems prevail; let nature do its thing," Gediman said.
The National Park Service does have an ambitious program for reducing fire damage in advance. It lights prescribed burns when the weather and other conditions allow, reducing understory fuels in a way that mimics long-ago fires started by Native Americans or lightning. The agency also lets natural fires burn, unless they threaten to do major damage.
This strategy, used on other federal lands to varying degrees, emerged in the last quarter of the 20th century. Land managers realized that putting out every small fire meant more fuel for a bigger blaze, one that could reach into the crowns of the trees.
"Rather than suppressing all fires and thinking they're bad, they're actually part of the natural ecosystem," Gediman said.
Remaking the range
The timber industry sees a role for prescribed burning, but it says logging is crucial to reducing the fuels and would provide plenty of jobs and lumber as well.
Brink cited research suggesting that California national forests have twice as much "biomass" trees, brush and other organic matter than they did a century ago. "How do we get half the vegetation off the landscape in a manner the public will accept?" he said.
Buckley said environmentalists support such efforts, including a detailed plan that was emerging for a large part of the national forest, but Congress has not approved enough funding.
Roger Bales, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California at Merced, said fuel reduction also could increase the amount of water that flows into the range's streams and reservoirs.
Initial findings suggest a gain of 10% to 30% if there are fewer trees soaking up water, he said.
The Rim fire, Bales said, "is an opportunity to get people's attention, and for elected officials to work with the land managers."
Forest thinning is nothing new.
The logging machine that the tour group watched had spent most of the summer working in live timber stands, culling out some of the trees so the rest could withstand fire.
"We'd rather be working slower and thinning the forest," Albrecht said, "but that's not what we got dealt here."
The Fresno Bee contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (209) 578-2835 or email@example.com.