Michael Wagner doesn’t like the idea of cutting down trees on his 71-acre Santa Rosa ranch, blackened by October wildfires.
But if he has to do it to rebuild his damaged house, he will. And he welcomes emergency measures from state officials that could make the job easier — and possibly put money in his pocket.
“It’s kind of like you’re putting the old horse down,” said Wagner, whose Blue Gate Road property was in the path of the Tubbs fire. “You don’t want to do it unless you absolutely have to.”
Under a proposal that could benefit Wagner and other fire victims, the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection has agreed to waive its requirement that residents file costly timber harvest plans before removing scorched trees to be sold for lumber.
The waiver would apply to stands within 300 feet of damaged or destroyed structures and would be in place for at least six months, speeding recovery and saving land owners up to $40,000 for the cost of timber plans.
Matt Dias, the board’s executive officer, said it was adopted after fire victims in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties complained the existing rules were a limiting factor in their ability to rebuild. The change is being reviewed by the Office of Administrative Law and could take effect later this month, he said.
“From the comments we have heard, it’s an important mechanism for landowners to move expeditiously in their reconstruction efforts,” Dias said Monday.
Just how many trees in the three counties could be removed was not available. In Sonoma County alone, fire burned 137 square miles, destroyed 5,130 homes and killed 24 people.
It carved a swath from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, charring groves of redwood, fir and oak including many near burned homes. Fred Frey, a certified arborist and owner of Vintage Tree Care Inc. in Santa Rosa, said he’s seen hundreds of acres of scorched trees that could be felled for timber. But he said it may be too soon to tell if trees are dead or can be saved.
“If we cut everything that’s black, you’re going to be looking at sand dunes,” Frey said. “Not everything that’s burned outside is dead. This spring, we will know a lot more.”
Environmental activists agreed. If trees aren’t examined closely they could be removed unnecessarily, said Larry Hanson, president of Forest Unlimited.
Hanson’s group is seeking to block the exemption, accusing forestry officials of effectively promoting logging by advancing the waiver.
“We don’t oppose doing it for safety reasons,” Hanson said. “But to go beyond and just cut down trees that are burned … it becomes an economic thing for companies.”
However, forestry officials said participation is voluntary. And trees outside the 300-foot perimeter would not be covered.
The department did not adopt a similar policy after the 2015 Lake County fire in part because landowners did not request it, Dias said.
“It’s not like the board is compelling anybody to do anything,” Dias said. “I think we’re facilitating construction and reconstruction while ensuring public health and welfare.”
Meanwhile, Wagner walked his sprawling land Monday, eyeing burned trees within range of his partially destroyed house.
He said he never planned to get into the timber business, but he could raise money to replant his property and make it safer if he did. An arborist will look at his trees in the coming weeks to make sure they are dead.