Dixie Fire Rehab: Salvaging a burned forest

Published: Jun. 6, 2022 at 6:37 PM PDT
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CRESCENT MILLS, Calif. (KOLO) - For days and weeks last summer, the Dixie Fire seemed unstoppable.

Sparked by a fallen tree on a power line, it grew rapidly. Within days it consumed whole hillsides of forest, threatening some communities, destroying the town of Greenville, literally in a matter of hours.

Those breathing the smoke far from the flames, watching news reports, had a hint of the destruction. Those of us who witnessed it first-hand had frankly never seen anything like it.

A visit nearly a year later to a scorched landscape is still surprisingly sobering. Everywhere you look you see miles and miles of blackened forest, whole mountainsides of it. It turns out some of that burned timber has real value.

And, at a newly created sawmill in Crescent Mills, that value is being mined.

The logs here were taken from nearby hillsides burned in the fire. They can still be turned into useable lumber, but the clock is ticking. Out in the burned landscape, attacked by insects, they soon begin to disintegrate. “The race is on to get as much of this moved as we can in about a two or three year period,” observed Brian West of J &C Lumber.

So, time is of the essence and that’s why this saw mill was set up. There was a mill here decades ago and the non-profit Sierra Institute had received grants through the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency, for an environmental cleanup. The plan was to use the site for bio-mass green energy production, thinning the forest while producing hydrogen to fuel cars and machinery. The fire forced a new imperative and a change of plans.

“Take some of these burned trees and actually convert them into lumber,“ says Jonathan Kusel of the Sierra Institute. “Higher value. Create some jobs. In the process with that lumber help rebuild Greenville and some of the other communities that were burned in the fire.”

The timber comes from small plots of private land around here. Normally it might go to a big timber operation, but the Dixie fire Left so much burned timber on surrounding public land there’s no interest in working smaller plots. So, these logs would likely remain on the hillsides, if not for this sawmill.

Removing the burned and dead trees is just the start. Bringing the forest back will be a complex, time consuming process.

“Forests really struggle to reestablish themselves unless we give them a helping hand,” says Isaac Silverman of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. “And that’s what this infrastructure is about in a sense. It’s finding a way to take a lot of that dead material off the landscape, reseeding the ground and then go back in and treat those forests again to make sure that they grow up and that there are trees and forests on these landscapes for future generations.”

Like the forest, communities like Greenville will take decades to fully recover. Tomorrow night, the signs of rebuilding, the challenges and the role these burned trees could play in speeding the process.

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