The smoke from the Rim Fire has yet to clear, but logging companies and cattle ranchers are already hard at work saving what assets are left.
Roughly 200 truckloads of burned timber are being hauled out of the forest each day, enough wood to build about 70 average-size homes, according to Mike Albrecht, president of Sierra Resource Management, a Sonora-area logging company that's assisting Sierra Pacific Industries salvage torched wood across more than 20,000 acres of the company's land in the southern half of the Stanislaus National Forest.
"Thousands of logs will be processed everyday," Albrecht said on Thursday, during a tour hosted by the Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment.
The 20th annual TuCARE Natural Resources Tour took more than 55 participants around areas damaged by the historic Rim Fire, which has burned more than 257,000 acres of land in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park and become the third-largest California wildfire ever.
Representatives from TuCARE, which represents logging, cattle-grazing and mining interests in Tuolumne County, said they wanted to focus on identifying alternative forest management practices that could better prevent future catastrophic wildfires - namely, harvesting more timber out off of federal lands.
"This is a hopeful tour," said TuCARE Executive Director Melinda Fleming. "We are looking at ways to create a better forest and one that can be more resilient to fire."
Tour participants traveled by bus along Cottonwood Road to Cherry Lake, which has been inaccessible to the public since shortly after the Rim Fire began on Aug. 17.
Along the way, "moonscapes" featuring countless charred trees could be seen.
Steve Brink, of the California Forestry Association, was a featured speaker on the tour and stressed the need to begin salvaging the dead trees off the forest before they decay. Not only will the trees lose their market value as quality timber after a couple years, he said, they could also obstruct reforestation efforts.
Brink said the danger is that dead trees will eventually fall after a few years, likely on top of layers of brush and shrubs that grow in quickly behind wildfires.
"You can't stack it up like firewood any better than that," he said. "We and numerous other stakeholders believe that until the denuded lands are reforested, all of that activity should be treated as an emergency."
Brink warned that if it's not declared an emergency, all of the reforestation efforts across an estimated 160,000 acres of land burned in the Stanislaus National Forest will probably have to come out of the U.S. Forest Service's pocket. He estimated the cost of those efforts totaling up to $300 million.
During a stop at a 13-mile long fire line created by SPI in the first few days of the fire, local rancher Bob Brennan talked about having to round up roughly 200 cattle in one week – usually a month's worth of work – from his grazing allotments before the Rim Fire could reach them.
Brennan said he's lost about a dozen head of cattle, including some that had to be put down because their hooves were too damaged after walking through hot embers.
At the tour's next stop near the Jawbone Creek area, a $400,000 "feller buncher" machine operated by Rafael Garcia, of Sierra Resources Management, was cutting down blackened pines and stacking the logs for hauling.
That area being salvaged had previously burned in the 1973 Granite Fire. SPI forester Ken Fleming, husband of Melinda Fleming, was in charge of reforesting the area after that wildfire. He was in the middle of planning a project to thin the area when his 30 years of work went up in flames.
Fleming planned to start his second reforestation effort at the site by next fall.
"We'll grow seeds for one year in a nursery," he said. "We have enough seed to replant the forest from this fire."
Matt Reno, an SPI biologist, said there were patches of healthy trees deeper in the area that would be protected for wildlife. Owls and other bird species will likely thrive in those "green pockets," he said, while the burned areas will hopefully become "prime foraging habitat."
Reno and his team have already spotted various animals, including ravens, fawns, chipmunks, gray squirrels and hawks while working in places the Rim Fire scorched.
"We're still seeing a lot of wildlife even in these totally burned areas," he said. "They will come back with a vengeance in the next couple of years."
The tour eventually made its way to Cherry Lake, which featured a healthy looking landscape despite the wastelands leading up to it. SPI's Standard Mill was the tour's final stop, where participants learned about how the logs are processed.
Carolyn Lott, of Sonora, said the tour gave her a better understanding of the Rim Fire's destruction.
"Seeing the tragedy of it all in-person makes it so much more real," she said. "It was good to hear a company like SPI has thought through a lot of different facets of this."