USA Tim Bray calls it the “biggest unreported natural disaster in this region’s history.”
And as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter in the Mark Twain National Forest, Bray said an even bigger potential disaster is waiting to happen.
He is talking about the May 2009 storm system a “derecho” that tore through south-central Missouri with tornadoes and straight-line winds of 90 miles per hour. The maelstrom damaged homes and knocked down in excess of 1 million trees across more than 100,000 acres, including some 40,000 acres of Mark Twain National Forest.
Forest Service Silviculturist (forest expert) John Bryan said the tree damage in 2009 was unprecedented for Missouri.
The area has minimal canopy in some places where it was all toppled from wind, and we are still in the ongoing cleanup phase, Bryan said. When this event first happened, it was so large that even aerial flights didnt show us the whole picture, so we had to use satellite imaging to see the entire area affected and the extent of the damage.
Waiting for a spark
All that timber some of it huge tree trunks piled 30 feet high has been drying for years, awaiting only one good spark to ignite it into a massive forest fire.
That’s what keeps Bray, a forest service “zone fuel specialist,” up at night.
“With all that wood on the ground you can’t maneuver in the forest to fight a fire if it gets started,” Bray said. “In some of those areas where we would typically do prescribed burns, those pretty much stopped because we had safety concerns for crews being able to get out if it got out of control.”
The amount of fuel on the ground forced officials who manage the Mark Twain National Forest near Salem, Potosi, Bunker and Fredericktown to come up with a plan. Since 2013, the forest service has enlisted the help of local sawmills and private timber contractors to go in and drag out tens of thousands of downed trees.
Salvaged wood put to use
Instead of going to waste or fueling a massive forest fire the storm-damaged trees have been turned into railroad ties, support timbers for the mining industry, wood flooring, curved staves for oak barrels and rough wood boards to make pallets.
According to Bray, the latest cleanup effort known as the Bunker Area Derecho Fuels project has been a win for the U.S. Forest Service and for timber companies that got the chance to salvage damaged timber at lower than usual contract prices.
“Our first effort was to put out contracts to salvage logs up to 300 feet from existing roadways,” Bray said. “It was a joint effort with our timber folks, trying to figure out how much timber there was and the most efficient way for them to get it.”
Clearing downed timber close to roads in the Mark Twain National Forest served two purposes. It was the easiest timber for salvage companies to reach, and once removed, it gave Forest Service firefighters better avenues of access and escape if the remaining downed trees ever caught fire and got out of control.
Early on, loggers bid on Forest Service contracts to harvest the downed trees, paying less for the wood than usual because it was considered damaged. As years went by, the remaining downed timber became even less valuable as it aged and began to deteriorate.
50 million board feet of wood
Mark Twain National Forest officials sought funding from the U.S. Forest Service to pay for the massive cleanup project in rolling forest land. According to Bryan, more than 50 million board-feet of storm-toppled timber has been removed and turned into wood products.
That’s a lot of wood. Enough, for example, to put wood flooring in 326,000 average-sized homes or be sawed into 1.1 million railroad ties.
Brian Brookshire, executive director of the Missouri Forest Products Association, said processing all that wood provided extra income for thousands of loggers and sawmills, money that rippled through small communities in the heart of Missouri’s timber areas.
“The ’09 storm was an issue where a lot of material came down at one time,” Brookshire said. “It created an opportunity for our industry to work with the Mark Twain National Forest to clean up a real mess in the forest.”
Brookshire said logging crews encountered difficult terrain and tangles of trees, making their work more difficult and dangerous.
“The trees were difficult to get to. Many were uprooted with huge rootballs still attached, which made cutting the log difficult because sometimes you wouldn’t know what the tree would do once you sawed through the log,” he said. “It was a safety issue. We had some broken legs and ankles from that, but fortunately no serious injuries from working through all that damage.”
10,000 truckloads of logs
Brookshire said the Mark Twain National Forest cleanup equated to “10,000 tractor-trailer truckloads of logs.” He said Missouri’s sawmills on average produce 500 million board-feet of wood products a year, and the 50 million board feet of wood removed from the Mark Twain National Forest “was a lot of material we were able to salvage.”
“Six to seven years later, the usefulness of the wood that’s left is almost gone,” Brookshire added. “If a log is in contact with the soil, you only have a few years to get it out for it to be useful for a sawmill before it starts to break down.”
It wasn’t just the Mark Twain National Forest that took a hit from the storm. In her in-depth look at the storm’s impact for a story in Forest History Today magazine, author Denise Henderson Vaughan said the storm damaged 113,000 acres across a 100-mile swath.
According to Vaughan, the Missouri Department of Conservation was able to salvage 22 million board-feet of downed trees on its land, while 30 million board-feet of timber was pulled from privately owned Pioneer Forest. She notes that the Mark Twain National Forest’s cleanup is still an ongoing effort.
A costly cleanup
The Forest Service’s cost to develop and oversee the cleanup plan was $5.05 million, which was partially offset by timber company bids for the wood totaling $3.79 million.
“From the get go, this has been a losing proposition for the Forest Service,” said firefighter Bray. “But it has been beneficial from the fire and safety standpoint, and money from the salvage contracts has benefited the local economy.”
The “easy” lumber has been removed, but there are still thousands of trees littering the national forest, most deteriorated to the degree that they no longer have commercial value except, ironically, as firewood.
The Forest Service is now moving on to its next strategy for dealing with much of the wood that remains.
“Now, for the public’s and firefighters’ safety, we are paying on a smaller scale to have contractors go in and get this done,” Bray said. “In this phase we’re paying them to go in and remove what they can, working down the ridge tops. We tapped out the salvage along our road systems. Now we’re focusing beyond the roads.”
In the Mark Twain National Forest, officials estimate there are up to 8,000 acres of downed trees left to reach and remove. Salvage crews can expect several more years of work, which the Forest Service estimated will add an additional $1.5 million to the final cost of the project.
Until then, Bray said Forest Service crews will keep a close watch on the forest, to squelch any fires quickly before they can build into bigger, harder-to-control blazes. They have access to a firefighting helicopter locally and can call for aerial support from other tanker aircraft from nearby states if a fire is getting out of control.
Disaster’s silver lining
While much of the downed timber will be removed by contractors, Bray said Mother Nature and time will prove to be a valuable ally.
“Eventually what’s left will rot away,” Bray said.
If there’s a silver lining to the disastrous 2009 storm, it’s in the Missouri forest’s ability to regenerate itself. Because storm winds tore away a lot of forest canopy, more light will be able to reach the forest floor, allowing new trees to grow. Logging efforts to remove downed trees also will inadvertently disturb the soil and help plant tens of thousands of acorns and other tree seeds that otherwise might have rotted on the surface or been devoured by animals.
Bray said he’s also seen evidence that black bears have used uprooted trees as winter dens.
“They say there’s three ways to regenerate a forest in the Missouri Ozarks disturbance, disturbance, disturbance,” Bray said. “We’ve not had a bigger disturbance in our forests than the derecho incident in 2009.”