Timber Salvage After Wild Fires or Natural Disasters: Decisions can be tough to make!We recently had to make some tough decisions on how to salvage timber after a serious wild fire damaged the property of a client. The property is located in an area where wild fires are common during the fall and in February through May. We had performed no management on this property prior to the wild fire as we were unaware that the client owned it. The property included a mixture of young, merchantable, growing longleaf pine with natural stocking and spacing and an older mature stand along its western boundary. The fuel loading was considerable with draped fuels. Other species included sand hill type hardwoods that were mainly of pulpwood grade. The wild fire was a running crown fire which produced a high percentage of crown scorch in the older longleaf pine stand and heavily damaged the upland hardwoods on about half of the tract.
Decision making can be influenced by many factors. Some of the questions we asked ourselves follow. These questions mainly relate to the pine timber as it was obvious that the hill hardwood could not withstand the extreme heat and bark damage. The first question was will the mature longleaf survive the fire damage? While the initial assessment looked bleak the weather remained wet after the fire and the needle structure began to reappear after most all of the needles fell to the ground. We have experienced very hot fires in longleaf stands before and have found the specie to be very resilient to fire even with crown and needle damage from flames or intense scorching.
Several what if's came to mind when trying to answer question #1. We felt that in a wet period that the trees would show signs of survival but what if a drought period came along during the summer or early fall? If a drought period came would turpentine beetles and other agents attack the residuals thus causing the older trees to succumb? We observed some beetle issues a week or so after the initial assessment was made. Didn't like that!
The third question has multiple parts and involves the current damaged stand and post thin stand composition? This stand included mature, high valued saw timber and poles. Could we afford to guess that these trees will survive and is there any advantage to leaving them in hopes that additional volume and value will accrue? If we lightly thin the stand to remove high risk damaged trees is there enough volume in place to justify a future operation where another stand entry will be required? In other words, if the trees die later can we put together a viable operation to harvest them?
The fourth question was. What is the long term management objective of the client? We knew that answer as the client is active in longleaf pine restoration and endangered specie protection on longleaf sites. Should we reduce the stand to a seed tree density while keeping a Basal Area requirement to enhance Gopher Tortoise habitat? Can we effectively start a prescribed burning program in the future to reduce wild fire risk and implement longleaf and endangered specie recovery and enhancement?
I am sure there were more thoughts or decision factors to consider but we didn't take a chance on the stand surviving. It was thinned to a low BA to suit natural regeneration and endangered specie enhancement. We also cut all of the hill hardwood and thinned the younger natural longleaf stand on the east side of the tract.
While financial issues (timber sale prices) had some impact we did not wait long to make a decision and obtained a logger to salvage the tract. Time is of the essence in salvage operations and mills do not prefer charred wood. We now plan on getting a seed catch or even planting container longleaf stock in openings.
Forest management, especially in salvage situations, is not perfect nor is it truly a gambling deal but sometimes a less than perfect decision, if immediately implemented, is better than the perfect one deferred, where biological and financial variables are unknown. As Clint Eastwood said "Do you feel lucky?