The human impacts of the Archie Creek Fire are staggering — 109 homes lost, more structures damaged and extensive displacement of community members. Some lost everything; everyone lost something. While local governments and community organizations continue to provide relief to these individuals, the destructive toll to timberlands will have significant consequences in Douglas County for years to come.
Despite these heavy losses, many local forest products companies quickly stepped in to provide direct financial relief to impacted families. The Swanson Group and Roseburg Forest Products each contributed $25,000 to a fire relief fund administered by Douglas Timber Operators and the Umpqua Fisheries Enhancement Derby. Many other companies, including Starfire Lumber, Douglas County Forest Products, Ireland Trucking, and Bruce Standley Construction, added to the relief effort. So did over 100 individuals and churches. Other spontaneous relief initiatives, like Glide Strong, have populated the front lines with generosity, guidance, support, clothing and warm food.
We are not alone.
Statewide, over 1 million acres have burned in Oregon this year. About 53% of the total acreage lies within federal ownership, according to a Sept. 13 analysis by forestry consulting firm Mason, Bruce & Girard. This proportion mirrors statewide forest ownership numbers, but deviates from the trend. Averaged over the last 10 years, federal lands account for 86% of forestlands that burn in Oregon.
Here in Douglas County, the Archie Creek Fire has burned over 131,000 acres. According to the federal Incident Command team, there are over 1,000 people formally assigned to fight the fire, which has cost taxpayers over $15 million in suppression. Statewide, there are over 7,500 personnel assigned to fires. This does not include many of the landowners, loggers, forestland operators and community members who are contributing every day. Some of these people lost their own home while fighting the fire.
The economic losses of the fire are overwhelming and will reverberate for many years. About 35% of the Archie Creek burn area lies within large industrial timberlands ownership, such as Roseburg Forest Products, Lone Rock Resources and Seneca. Of course, the fire did not burn the same on every acre and analyses are currently being conducted to categorize burn severity.
Based on a conservative estimate of existing data, all the 2020 fires in Oregon may have killed as much as 15 billion board feet. That is the equivalent of four times the entire annual statewide timber harvest in Oregon — across private, state, federal, county and tribal ownerships. Or put another way, enough wood to build 1 million homes.
However, the economic value of fire-killed timber rapidly declines to zero. Insect infestations will quickly spread to newly killed trees, especially where bugs were already digesting un-salvaged wood from previous fires. Other biological deterioration begins immediately and even the largest trees will be worthless for processing within two years.
Private landowners are already working to salvage dead trees and get them to mills for recovery. This is only possible for trees of merchantable age, generally over 30 years old. Younger tree stands will often be total losses. Whether any value is recovered or not, heavily burned areas on private forestlands will effectively start over with new seedlings placed in the ground.
This massive reforestation effort is unprecedented. There have been larger individual fires in Oregon history — but there has never been this collective magnitude of fires. The 2020 fires consumed more acres than ever known before, and twice the 10-year average. The scale of destruction will strain available resources needed to recover forestlands. Loggers are needed to harvest fire-killed logs and truckers needed to transport them to mills. Many of them are still contracted to fight the very same fires. Five logging companies in Douglas County alone lost equipment in the Archie Creek Fire because their operations were previously halted by an elevated Industrial Fire Precaution Level. Nurseries will struggle to produce enough seedlings for reforestation within the optimum time period for replanting. Similar constraints will be placed on planting crews.
This reforestation effort — primarily on private lands — will produce a quick surplus of timber supply. Our milling infrastructure has steadily diminished because of the lack of federal timber production. Yet, Douglas County has more wood processing capacity than anywhere else.
After a flood of charred logs, there will be a drought. The planning horizon for Oregon timber production must be totally re-written. Timber stands of every age were lost, impacting future timber supply for decades. More than ever, federal timber harvest from BLM-administered O&C lands and from the Forest Service will be needed to fill the gap.