The excellent articles in recent editions of the Sierra Star concerning the current bark beetle epidemic brought back memories of my experiences following the 1976-77 drought, although our current extended period with little rain is much more severe than what we had in the 70s. Thousands of trees died and the relentless attack on live trees was ongoing.
Back then the Minarets Ranger District decided to make removal of dead and dying trees our most important objective to lessen the danger of wildfire. We hired tree markers, timber sale administrators, archaeologists and botanists to take on this huge task. In 1979, we sold 125 million board feet of dead and dying trees and in 1980, 55 million feet. The goal was to remove the dead and dying trees while protecting the environment.
It took a massive effort orientating so many new employees, along with the need for additional housing. That was taken care of by renting trailers and moving them to the old trailer park at Wagner’s near Mammoth Pool and activating the one near the North Fork ranger station.
The timber sales pretty much covered all areas on the ranger district eligible for logging. Helicopters were used to take out salvage trees on ground too steep for tractors. All in all, tens of thousands of acres were treated.
The botanists surveyed creeks and meadows to find and protect sensitive plants. Two positive spin-offs from covering so much ground was the development of an inventory of both archaeological and sensitive plant sites. This saved time and money on future projects. The inventory by the botanists included location of sources of erosion in meadows. Funds were collected from the timber sales to repair gullies and restore meadows.
The bark beetles were still active when logging began. One sale included the area on both sides of the Minarets Highway from below Clearwater station up to the Minarets Work center. The logger started at Clearwater and worked his way to the end of his sale. By that time, dead trees showed up on the area he had just finished so he started up the road again. This process continued for two years until the attack subsided. By 1983, the sales were finished and the bark beetle epidemic over. We all breathed a sigh of relief and moved on to other projects and objectives.
An additional positive was that for about two years virtually all the roads on the district were graded and maintained. In those days, there were mills in Oakhurst, North Fork and Auberry. The mills started booming once the salvage logs started down the hill.
One would not want to try that today but it seemed to work back then.
Move forward 40-plus years to the recent big scare from the Willow Fire between North Fork and Bass Lake.
An excellent question was asked of fire officials at one of the public meetings concerning the Willow Fire - “What can we do to prevent another Willow fire?”
I believe creativity, teamwork, cooperation, and lots of hard work are the only hope for our local communities of preventing large forest and brush fires since commercial removal of trees and brush are not an option like they were in the 1980s.
Here are some ideas for our county leaders, Cal Fire, and the Forest Service to think about:
Madera County could offer cash rebates to Mountain Area residents who purchase chippers, chain saws, weed eaters, and portable sawmills from local participating merchants.
Madera County could streamline permits for those who want to operate portable sawmills.
Madera County could give free business permits to those who start brushing and fire hazard reduction businesses.
Madera County could set up rewards and special recognition for the top three volunteer groups that work on reducing fire hazards, and offer recognition and rewards for outstanding individuals.
Cal Fire and the Forest Service engine crews and fire crews could spend three or four hours a day cutting brush and reducing fire hazards in critical areas. Do this in place of physical training.
Forest Service officials could seek authorization to give free fire wood cutting permits until the hazards are reduced.
Forest Service officials could give quick written permission to adjacent private land owners who are willing to reduce the fire hazard on National Forest property adjacent to their land.
The North Fork Fire Safe Council, the Coarsegold Resource Conservation District, and the Resource Conservation and Development group could host a forum to expand ideas and assign willing workers to take on various aspects of this huge undertaking.
We can’t take dead trees to local sawmills like we did in 1979 because they are gone, the result of unexpected consequence of the Endangered Species Act. But I don’t see a sense of urgency here like there was in 1979, despite all the fires last year and this year, coupled with all the dead trees.
There is still a lot of brush along our roads and many homes do not have adequate fire clearance. There are dead trees everywhere. Where is our fear? Where is our sense of urgency? Our mountains should ring with the sound of chainsaws and weedeaters. Neighbor should be helping neighbor. I fear another disastrous fire is just a spark away.
My hope is our mountain communities will be much more fire safe by this time next year.
Note: Paul Rich is a retired U.S. Forest Service employee and former North Fork resident. He was the District Ranger on the Minarets Ranger district from 1977 to 1988, and then was the Sierra National Forest Resource Officer with oversight for wildlife, fisheries, botany, archeology, geology, and watershed programs from 1988 to 1995.