Tornado damage, state’s depleted forest service could be fire hazard

Tornado damage, state’s depleted forest service could be fire hazard

06 June 2011

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USA — You can view the timber damage from the tornadoes on April 15 and 27 that swept through the as an estimat­ed $266 million in lost revenue spread over 204,590 acres in 39 counties. You can view it as 12 million tons of tim­ber now lying on the ground or as enough timber to have supplied six medium-sized pulp and paper mills for a year.

Or you can view it as State Forest­er Linda Casey does, as endless tons of potential tinder to feed one of the largest forest fire threats in the state’s history.

The huge loss is now a huge fire risk.

The agency responsible for re­sponding to forest fires had challenges even before millions of trees were rip­ped and broken by the tornadoes. The Alabama Forestry Commission’s 2011 budget was reduced by about $5 mil­lion from the previous year because of reduction in federal funding and sev­erance tax receipts. That meant the loss of 70 employees, Casey said.

“I (was) so concerned, even before the tornadoes, about the resources we have to protect forests and homeown­ers,” Casey said. “Now, fast forward to this fall, or right now, with 12 mil­lion tons of timber on the ground, the majority of which won’t be picked up.”

In 2010, the commission’s firefighters protected 2,213 homes, 74 other structures and 1,170 vehicles from wildfire.

This year, there are 176 firefighters, 38 less than the commission had last year. When the firefighters aren’t battling blazes, they’re helping landowners on land management best practices or reforestization.

“We tried to take as many out of the state office as we could,” Casey said about the 70 eliminated positions.

Most of those positions were eliminated through attrition, she said. Her staff is now about 260 members statewide. That includes “crews” of two people in each county responsible for responding to fires. It used to be that counties with higher fire risks, namely in the southwest portion of the state, had multiple crews.

On Wednesday, a forest fire in Mobile County required assistance from crews from Baldwin and Escambia counties.

That was what was needed, Casey said, but it left those counties without responders if a fire broke out there. And that team approach may not be possible when the fire season begins in earnest this fall.

Blaze battles

The commission depends on the help of about 1,000 volunteer fire departments around the state, but Casey said her agency is the only one specifically charged with protecting the 22 million acres of Alabama forest.

“You try to take the path of least resistance when fighting fires,” said Forestry Commission spokesman Mike Kyser. “If you can’t get your equipment in, and you can’t fight them from the roads, we are going to see more fires, larger fires and fires that cover more acres.”

The best way to control the fires is by using bulldozers to cut firebreaks, stopping the spread of the flames. Even in the densest standing timber, bulldozers can find a way through to put in a break.

When acres of trees have been shattered and broken by tornadoes, the access of the heavy equipment is limited, Kyser said. Many damaged areas have large tracts where trees and debris are stacked on top of each other reaching several feet in depth.

“With the size of many of the trees that were downed and uprooted during the tornadoes, even our biggest ‘dozers can’t get through,” he said. “And ground teams can’t get hose lines in either when you are dealing with that kind of debris.”

Perry County landowner Allen Taylor has about 23 acres of damaged pines. He’s looking for a logger to come on his place and salvage the downed 15-year-old trees.

“Maybe we can get them chipped up and make a little money,” he said. “That part of the stand was really hit hard. Most of the trees are in pieces. I’d be satisfied to get the mess cleaned up without it costing me too much money.

“If a fire got in there the way it is now, fighting it would be a real struggle.”

Weather worries

Along with the damaged timber, dry conditions are increasing the threat of woods fires.

The U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly report compiled using information from several federal sources, shows about 67 percent of the state is in some form of drought. In the report released Thursday, the Wiregrass region and most of Mobile and Baldwin counties were listed as being in an “extreme” drought, the second most severe level of drought.

Also Thursday, the commission issued a fire alert covering Monroe, Conecuh and Clarke counties. That’s on top of an alert for Baldwin, Escambia, Mobile and Washington counties that was issued May 19. During a fire alert, burn permits for the affected areas will be issued at Casey’s discretion.

Anyone should exercise extreme caution when burning outside, Kyser said.

“The best advice is not to burn,” he said. “Things are so dry right now, and in the areas where the fire alert is in places the humidity levels are so low, chances are high for a fire to get out of control quickly.”

Wednesday night, crews in Baldwin County responded to a two-acre fire. Before it was put under control, nearly 150 acres had burned, reports show.

“We had our people on the ground tell us that flames were 30-feet high,” Kyser said. “That’s very unusual for a woods fire in Alabama.”

There isn’t much hope, or help, on the horizon, as far as the drought is concerned.

The National Weather Service is expecting the drought to worsen over the summer, and temperatures will be higher than normal through the middle of June, said Aaron Gleason, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Birmingham. That means damaged trees will dry out more quickly, making for tinderbox conditions.

Back in Perry County, Taylor doesn’t need weather satellites or computer models to make predictions.

“It’s shaping up to be a long, hot and dry summer,” he said, crumbling a clod of parched Black Belt dirt in his callused hands. “I sure do hate it, but there ain’t a damned thing we can do about it.”

‘Four to six weeks’

Johnny Carothers, president and co-owner of Baseline Forest Services in Wetumpka, said the fallen timber is a no-win situation for all involved.

Forest owners have lost value, loggers are having to work harder to collect less product at reduced values and mills are backed up.

For loggers working in damaged forests, the once mechanized process of logging is now more dangerous and time-consuming, Car-
others said.

“When you’re having to handle it by hand and by chainsaws, it is much more dangerous,” he said.

And crews that once collected 10 loads of timber a day are now getting five to six, he said. That’s a huge difference in an industry where you’re paid by the ton. He has heard of pulpwood going for as low as $3 per ton.

“When (loggers) are looking at $30,000 a month in payments on equipment, they’re losing their tails.”

And soon, the fallen timber will be worthless.

“Right now, if a pine tree has been broken off, you have four to six weeks (to get it off the ground before it starts rotting and loses value),” Carothers said. “Well, we’re at that now. It’ll be like Ivan, when the wood rotted and you can’t do anything with it.”

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan damaged 11.8 million acres of Alabama forests, but 11.4 million of those acres were classified as “very low or low” damage, Casey said. Foresters were able to salvage about 41 percent of that damaged timber at about 24 percent of its value.

There are differences between then and now, said Sam Duvall of the Alabama Forestry Association: In September 2004, there was more demand for the fallen timber and the weather was less hot and humid.

“This time of year, a lot of mills are shutting down for scheduled maintenance,” Duvall said.

Also, Ivan’s damage was much more concentrated. The April tornadoes damaged trees in 36 counties, most in the northern portion of the state.

Casey estimates that only about 5 percent of the damaged wood could be sold.

“(The tornadoes) could not have hit at a worse time,” Casey said.

What’s next

The commission has asked for $66 million in assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its Farm Service Agency’s Emergency Forest Restoration Program helps private landowners after a natural disaster. Congress is responsible for appropriating the funding.

“It pays for restoration of a forest,” Casey said. “Site prep and planting.”

Still, replacing large trees is a process that takes years, if not decades.

“These are landowners that are in it for the long term,” she said.

Duvall said the Alabama Forestry Association’s primary concern is the individuals who own smaller parcels of land . They make up the majority of the state’s forest owners, holding their properties as investments to be harvested for their retirements or children’s college tuition.

“A lot of those folks just don’t know how to deal with this,” he said. “So, a big part of the recovery effort will be to get as much information as possible to the small landowners.

“They need attention because they don’t have the big resources.

As for the budget that Casey is expecting from the state next year, without proration it’s about $9.5 million. That’s about $1.5 million less than this year. The state funding represents about 45 percent of the agency’s budget.

Casey said she will not be able to fill positions as they’re vacated and she’s already had people apply for retirement.

She understands people wanting to leave the commission.

“I am asking them to be on call 24/7 and they haven’t had a pay increase in several years and the price of health insurance is going up,” she said.

Meanwhile, the agency’s equipment is aging. By October, 40 percent of the fire-fighting fleet will be more than 20 years old — well past the standard replacement age, she said.

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