Lake County’s Valley fire-damaged trees flood lumber market
Singed logs are piled high in stacks throughout Cobb Mountain, evidence of the massive amount of damage inflicted last year on forests by wildfires that blackened more than 170,000 acres in Lake County.
Hundreds of thousands of dead and dying conifers are slated to be turned into lumber but it’s unclear whether they’ll make the grade at a time when California’s market and sawmills are swamped with salvage logs, creating a glut and lowering their value. Most of the trees also are pine, which are less desirable and valuable than redwood or Douglas fir.
The surplus is being exacerbated by relatively low housing construction and an increase in imported lumber from Canada, industry officials say.
Trees that are unwanted or unsuitable for lumber are being chipped or turned into firewood. But huge numbers still need to be cleared from properties before rebuilding and rehabilitation can begin on the scorched land.
“What are we going to do with all this wood?” Greg Giusti, a timber adviser with the UC Extension Service, wondered. “That’s a $64,000 question.”
No figures were available for the amount of damaged timber that needs to be removed from private lands, but in the 3,500-acre Boggs Mountain Demonstration Forest alone, an estimated 250,000 trees with fire damage are being salvage logged, said Nicholas Kent, state forest manager at Boggs.
The glut adds to the many environmental struggles arising from three fires that last year burned through an estimated 20 percent of Lake County. The most damaging of the three, the Valley fire, killed four people, consumed 76,067 acres and destroyed more than 1,900 structures, including 1,281 homes. It was the third-most destructive fire in state history.
Statewide, wildfires last year burned through more than 10 million acres, the most land burned in the state in at least 25 years, according to figures kept by the National Interagency Fire Center.
California sawmills were still dealing with logs salvaged from 2014 forest fires when last year’s blazes erupted. The surplus strained the market.
Also strained are the state’s dwindling number of sawmills. Policy and legal constraints — triggered by decades of over-logging — have dramatically reduced timber harvests, especially on public lands. More than 80 mills have closed in California since the late 1990s, leaving about 30 in operation, said Mark Pawlicki, director of corporate affairs and sustainability at Sierra Pacific Industries. The company is the state’s largest timberland owner and producer of wood products. It has 11 mills in California and three in Washington, he said.
The only large industrial mills left on the North Coast are in Ukiah, Cloverdale, Scotia and Eureka, Giusti said.
“There is no industry left to speak of,” he said.
“I think there’s probably going to be more material available than any mill can absorb,” said Mike Jani, president of Mendocino Redwood Co.
There’s also not much of a market generally on the North Coast for pine, which comprises about two-thirds of the salvage logs being removed from Boggs Mountain. Pine does not have the weight-bearing potential of Douglas fir, so it has fewer construction uses and less value.
The pine cut on Boggs Mountain earns the state only between $1 and $20 per thousand board feet, depending on how difficult it is to harvest, Kent said. Douglas fir is bringing between $76 and $122 for the same amount of wood. The harvest on a portion of forest that contained 22 million board feet of predominately fir is expected to yield $1.8 million. Another 40 million board feet of mostly pine is expected to bring between $600,000 and $800,000 if the market holds at the higher end, Kent said. All the money will go back into rehabilitation of the forest, which lost 80 percent of live trees larger than 14 inches in diameter, measured at breast height.