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Over the past two decades, we’ve had a front-row seat to the effects climate change
has imposed on forests across the western states. Wildfires, each seemingly worse
than the year before, wreak havoc on forest land each summer and destroy millions
of trees. My western tour this summer has included stretches of Northern California
and Oregon where the fires have done tremendous damage and salvage crews are working
frantically to remove the dead trees while they still can.
And there are a lot of logs to salvage. I sat in on a talk by a forest ecologist who
had tracked the fire history of the district where she worked in central Oregon since
the beginning of the fire suppression policy more than a century ago. During most
of the decades, fires were small and consumed less than 5 percent of the forest in
any one decade. But, since 2000, two enormous fires have each ravaged about 25 percent
of the forest. Half of the forest burned in two decades.
Fire kills the trees but does not directly damage the wood quality of those with sound
boles. Salvage operations begin soon after the fires are out and crews and equipment
can be lined up to do the work. Because fire is an indiscriminate killer, all size
classes and kinds of trees are destroyed. In a normal logging operation, crews selectively
remove the kinds and sizes desired by the mills. The trucks I have seen rolling with
burned logs are hauling the largest trees first, leaving behind lesser trees in stacks,
or sometimes pushed into burn piles because there is not enough demand for the middling
Trees cut within the first year of a fire are usually the best and command a normal
market price for the lumber produced. But the window of time is short, for after three
years the wood cannot be salvaged.
The first problem to pop up with burned trees is a fungus disease called blue stain,
which is spread by bark beetles. The fungus spores are carried to the tree by bark
beetles that invade the sapwood of the tree. By the second season after the fire the
blue stain has spread to the heartwood of the tree and, while the lumber produced
from such trees is not significantly different than non-stained wood, it grades out
lower and sells for a lower price.
In addition to the blue stain, the bark beetles tunnel through the wood and create
pencil-sized galleries which impact both wood quality and price. In addition to the
blue stain fungus, other wood rot fungi are introduced into the bole of the tree by
the beetles. These fungi begin decaying the sapwood and then move into the heartwood
of the tree. Beyond the third year, the wood rotters have invaded enough of the core
of the tree that the wood is considered unfit for use as lumber.
Burned logs also present challenges during harvesting and milling. For the harvesting
crews, a constant concern is the fine bits of charcoal that accumulate in hard-to-reach
parts of their harvesting equipment and, if conditions are right, ignite and cause
an equipment fire. In the mill this same charcoal coats the electronic eyes that direct
the debarking and milling operations.
Are Arkansas forests as susceptible to fire as their western counterparts? So far
we’ve been lucky in the east because of our 40-plus inches of annual rainfall and
occasional summer rains. Much of the forest land in the west relies on a plentiful
snowpack and some rain during the growing season to keep trees healthy and fires at
bay. Global warming has reduced overall precipitation, with summertime rainfall hit
A multi-year drought cycle is not out of the question. We’ve had them before. Two
years in a row of drought probably won’t trigger fires in the east, but weather patterns
that produce extreme drought for three or more years would be scary and a possible
game changer. The pine forests of southern Arkansas, because of the flammable terpenes
contained in the needles, would be more likely to burn than the hardwoods. But the
oak forests of the Ozarks would not be immune to fire if conditions were severe enough.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.