As Sam Salmon was wandering around his 40 acre property in the hills near Healdsburg, he was investigating the damage from the Walbridge fire that tore a path of fiery destruction through his woodland last summer.
Except for the redwoods, most salmon trees will not survive.
“It’s about 80% gone,” said Salmon, a Windsor city councilor. “They have names for those tree species that have no limbs, they call them … bottle brushes.”
Previously, Salmon had cut some of his madrone trees for firewood, a project he joked that got paid for the chainsaw. But he doesn’t know what steps he might take to clear his forest, but he suspects that some of it could include piles of burning debris.
Fred Euphrates, a neighbor, will be carrying out salvage work on the 400 acres he owns, which was also set alight by the Walbridge Fire. He will remove stems from the Douglas fir and redwoods and let the roots grow back.
Salmon and Euphrates are two of the many forest and timber property owners in Sonoma County grappling with the same delicate issue as victims of the recent forest fires that have broken out on the north coast in recent years.
What do you do with all the wood that must be removed for proper forest management in times of unprecedented forest fires?
The Sonoma County Economic Development Board is trying to help resolve the bothersome problem and is contributing to the various ongoing efforts. These include cutting and brushing cal fire clearing vegetation and PG&E trees around power lines, even helicopter saws in remote areas to trim transmission lines.
The Economic Development Board has partnered to sponsor a competition for entrepreneurs and existing businesses to come up with suggestions for starting wood products. The goal of the competition is to work towards healthier forests in Sonoma County, which has approximately 513,000 acres of woodland.
The two biomass contest winners will each receive a $ 35,000 grant to advance wood removal and reuse projects.
“It helps further diversify our economy, especially at a time when we are dealing with COVID-19, where we see such success for certain dominant industries,” said Ethan Brown, director of business development and innovation for economic development Board.
However, local officials have recognized that competition will not revitalize the north coast lumbering industry, which flourished for decades until customer demand fell, mills closed and jobs disappeared in the 1970s. What was left of the industry continued to erode in the 1990s due to environmental concerns.
Local officials at Fort Bragg, Mendocino County are currently trying to turn the old Georgia Pacific facility into a hospitality neighborhood. The Skunk Train is a tourist attraction near the railway line that transports wood.
Even so, there are thriving timber activities. In 2020 Sonoma County harvested 10.7 million board feet of wood worth $ 8.4 million. Remnants of the once thriving industry include the family-run Parmeter Logging Inc. in Cazadero and the Redwood Empire Sawmill in Cloverdale, where the Euphrates sends some of its logs.
The County Biomass Business Contest builds on previous efforts to maintain a market for wood products related to fire safety. In 2016, Rep. Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, unveiled a bill that set up a working group to expand the timber market utilizing wood biomass from forest fire zones.
The work was pushed back by environmental groups who spoke out against the use of wood biomass – the renewable energy from plants and animals – as fuel for power plants. The Sierra Club has claimed that without government subsidies, biomass power generation cannot compete with “cleaner forms of power generation such as natural gas, solar and wind”.
Brown said the new local wood biomass initiative is not focused on generating electricity, but on promoting small businesses.
“It could be niche products like you make baseball bats, you make paperweights, doorknobs … something that might not need large lumps of wood,” said Rob Bamford, an air pollution control officer for the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District, a partner in the grant competition.
The supply of wood is huge and the residents are struggling with the consequences. This is a more pressing issue in Sonoma County as there are many small forest owners like Salmon and Euphrates.
“This time it’s about salvage with the goal of preserving good forest structure for the future,” said Euphrates, a retired forester who teaches the subject at Santa Rosa Junior College. “We select the trees individually.”