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Recovery becomes focus of Rim Fire

Across from the Rim of the World on Highway 120 a “no entry” sign is covered in green mulch used to help the burned area regrow. Jesse Jones / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
Biologists, loggers and federal emergency response teams are all separately working on projects to help stabilize soils, recover wildlife habitat and prepare for reforestation within the Rim Fire’s 402-square-mile footprint.

As the Burned Area Emergency Response Team continues working on projects to minimize the risk of landslides and flash flooding from erosion, the U.S. Forest Service has dispatched three teams to scour the area and prepare an attack plan for the extensive salvage and reforestation efforts in the coming months.

“We will be able to start releasing more information about these teams, their goals and objectives sometime next week,” said Stanislaus National Forest spokesman Jerry Snyder.

That information will include a timeline for future salvage and reforestation work, Snyder said. The teams will later develop a complete list of specific projects and the associated cost with each.

The Forest Service will first focus on removing hazard trees and salvaging burned timber, but the effects of those actions on wildlife habitat will be reviewed throughout the process, according to USFS wildlife biologist Crispin Holland.

“That’s what biologists are working on right now,” he said. “Our first goal is to salvage whatever lumber we can and then look at what we can do to get our forest back, because that’s what brings the habitat for critters to live in.”

Holland said the biologists in the area have been seeing the return of birds, squirrels and rodents. He said they’ve already found about 30 protected habitats for spotted owls and goshawks that have been charred.

A coordinated deer count with the California Fish and Wildlife Department is scheduled to be conducted in the first week of December, which should provide more information about how the deer herd is faring in the burned area, Holland said.

Holland also has heard from permittees in the area who say their total combined losses amount to about 100 heads of cattle. Some have been found dead, others had to be euthanized and a few more remain missing, he said.

Fish and Wildlife regional wildlife biologist Nathan Graveline said the agency is currently monitoring deer strapped with radio transmitters. The transmitters were initially placed on the herd to study mineral deficiencies and parasite issues, but the Rim Fire’s effects will also be examined.

“We’ll be looking at winter range use because the Jawbone area is a key winter range for deer and most with transmitters came from that area,” Graveline said. “We’re very interested to see where those animals go because there probably isn’t enough food for all of them to survive the winter.”

The herd of transmitter deer originally totaled 56, but that number has dropped to about 40 since the Rim Fire, according to Graveline. He said one deer recently died because the fire burned off its hooves, and another was euthanized Wednesday because severe burns had made it immobile and unable to eat.

Graveline has also seen pictures of bears that were killed or severely injured by the fire but hasn’t spotted one himself. He said the damage isn’t as bad as he had imagined.

“I expected a much higher mortality rate than what we’re seeing because the fire burned such a large area and went through so many different types of habitats,” he said.

Graveline said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to tally the total amount of animals killed either in the fire or its impact on their habitat.

Loggers working on salvaging burned timber from Sierra Pacific Industries land say they are already seeing a number of animals returning as well.

“The whole area is starting to come back in terms of wildlife,” said Mike Albrecht, president of Jamestown-based Sierra Resource Management, which is one of the 10 logging companies working under contract with SPI to complete the salvage.

Nearly 10,000 acres owned by SPI burned so severely that no trees survived, while another roughly 6,500 burned at moderate severity. The company owns a total of about 25,000 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest.

About 150 to 200 truckloads of salvaged timber are being hauled from the area each day, Albrecht said. That’s enough wood to build roughly 70 average-size homes.

“The state has very good emergency rules that allow quick action on salvage, so the regulatory part has gone very smooth,” Albrecht said. “It’s really just going like clockwork, and we’re all up against the weather.”

Albrecht said snow earlier this week shut down salvaging operations for 36 hours, but they were back to work Thursday.

Estimates have placed the amount of burned timber ready to be salvaged from public land damaged in the fire at up to 2 billion board feet, according to Albrecht, but a portion of that is along slopes and in canyons where equipment can’t go.

“The number we’re worried about is what we can get to, but we’re hoping for about 300 to 400 million board feet,” he said. “That would run our local industry for two years.”

About 25 percent of the salvage on SPI land has been completed, according to Mark Pawlicki, the company’s spokesman. He said the company will have a better assessment next year on how much it can salvage from the 6,500 acres that burned at moderate severity, which means 25 to 75 percent could still be alive.

The Forest Service has already authorized the sale of 2.15 million board feet under an exemption that allows the swift removal of “hazard trees” that have been deemed a threat to human safety.

However, Pawlicki doubts the Forest Service will be able to sell the estimated amount of burned timber considered salvageable due to “environmental constraints.”

“I don’t think it will be anywhere near the total assessments,” he said.


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