HAYFORK, Calif. — Even as firefighters continued to beat down the last of the wildfires eating up Northern California timber country, David Wickwire's crews were poking through the ashes, trying to figure out how best to repair the scars.
Wickwire, a gray-haired, veteran U.S. Forest Service ranger based in this small farm town about 75 miles west of Redding, heads a team of specialists--geologists, hydrologists and other Earth scientists--who last week began the job of rehabilitating tens of thousands of acres blackened since the end of August.
"While the people and equipment are still here and available, we always try to start this process immediately," Wickwire said, studying a map of the rugged and now burned-out terrain he is trying to shield from erosion and long-term environmental damage.
Assessing the Damage
From Lake Shasta to the edge of Yosemite National Park, rangers like Wickwire have begun the painstaking process of assessing the devastation left by the worst forest fires to hit California in 30 years.
It could take years--even decades--before the full extent of the damage is known. But already, forestry officials and natural resource economists are beginning to piece together a picture of the damage that was wrought--and the mammoth cost of replacing what was lost.
The raw numbers are staggering: More than 1.4 billion board-feet of lumber destroyed--the equivalent of 140,000 three-bedroom homes--with a market value of $140 million; 886 square miles of land scorched--an area roughly equal to Rhode Island; seven lives lost, 102 people injured, 38 homes destroyed, thousands of animals, mainly rodents and other ground dwellers, killed.
Cost of Millions
Fighting the California fires cost $4 million per day at the height of the emergency, bringing the total so far to about $70 million. Before all fires in the state are put out, officials estimate the bill could run as high as $100 million.
After that, the planned three-year rehabilitation program--replanting trees, fixing roads, checking erosion--could cost $150 million. Since most of the charred forests are on federal land, the U.S. Forest Service, probably with some help from Congress, will cover most of these costs.
Ironically, for all the devastation, the blazes will provide benefits for some--at least for a while.
For one thing, forestry officials estimate that as much as 75% of the lumber charred in fires can be salvaged, provided it is harvested before bark beetles and other insects attracted by smoke render the lumber commercially worthless.
The upshot is a boom for local lumberjacks and logging companies that could last two to three years.
"This would increase the forest service's normal harvest (in some areas) by two or three times and create a lot of employment for a few years," said Ed Tonnesen, land management planner for the Stanislaus National Forest, one of the state's worst-hit areas.
Tonnesen estimated that salvage operations could provide as many as 2,000 logging and reforestation jobs in Stanislaus National Forest alone.
Moreover, the increase in timber from salvaging could push down lumber prices and reduce home and commercial construction costs, said Peter Berck, an agricultural economist with the University of California, Berkeley.
He predicted that the expected influx of at least 1 billion additional board feet of pine and fir into the market could depress retail prices by as much as 25% until salvage operations end, although prices could be more stable if the U.S. Forest Service compensates by cutting back on the sale of other timber from federal land.
Retails Sales Up
Then there are retailers in the immediate fire areas who have been overwhelmed by a wave of demand for everything from steaks to gasoline to sustain the huge firefighting effort.
"They are hitting us for everything from fruit to meat--pork chops, steak, hamburger, everything, anything," Jim Wiley, owner of Wiley's Market in downtown Hayfork, said last week. During the height of the Trinity National Forest blazes, Hayfork saw its usual complement of 2,000 residents boosted by another 2,000 ravenous, thirsty firefighters, putting unusual pressure on local stocks of staples.
With more than 16,000 firefighters in the state, retailers in otherwise quiet mountain communities have had a heyday. For example, George Halcomb of the Trinity Market in Weaverville said he filled an order one day last week for 700 sirloin steaks--more than nine times the number he usually sells in an entire month.
Up in Smoke
Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, got an unexpected windfall when fires in Trinity, Mendocino, Lake and Nevada counties destroyed about 2,500 marijuana plants--with an estimated street value of as much as $8.5 million.