The largest fire in history is undergoing one of the biggest logging operations ever on the Colville Reservation.

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It’s a stickpin skyline: fire-blackened trees without leaves, needles or even branches as far as the eye can see.

The quiet is deathly, until an 18-wheel logging truck roars out of the blackened woods. James Griffin hops out of the baby-blue cab of his logging rig painted with silver flames. He strides past the towering tires and throws his weight into tightening the chains on a full load of ponderosa pine logs, some 3 feet around, he is trucking out of the burn.

First came the fire, now come the loggers. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation are unleashing a salvage logging operation in an emergency cut to get what value the tribes still can from charred and blackened trees. It’s a logging blitz nearly military in scope and one of the biggest ever in Washington: as many as 120 log trucks hauling more than half a million board feet of timber a day.

There isn’t enough of anything for an operation on this scale: Not enough loggers. Rigs. Mill capacity. Daylight hours in which to work.

Six days a week, 20 logging contractors and counting are cutting these burned woods, hauling what could amount to more than 20,000 semi truckloads of timber to market before it’s over, enough to build 4,200 homes. In the end, the total will depend on how much wood the tribes can get out, and how much the mills will take, at what price. The state’s largest salvage logging operation ever was about 100 million board feet of timber cut on Department of Natural Resources Lands in 2008 in Southwest Washington, after a windstorm.

The logging under way here now couldn’t be done this quickly on federal forest lands, if at all, said Jerry Franklin, professor of ecosystem analysis at the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington.

“These days salvage is so controversial it is very difficult to do, and to justify,” Franklin said. “It isn’t a good decision ecologically. Salvage hardly ever contributes to the recovery of an ecosystem; it is a tax on recovery. You do it for economic reasons.”

Out to inspect the logging operation as it geared up, natural- and cultural-resources staff for the tribes recently took their first look at the destruction wrought by the fires that burned more than 250,000 acres on their reservation.

The Chelan, Tonasket, Omak and Wenatchee areas also saw a terrible fire season. But the Tunk Block and North Star fires that burned here were the biggest in Washington’s historically destructive fire season. By the time these fires started in mid-August, most of the firefighters, air support and equipment already were deployed near population centers far from these woods. At the start, the tribes had only about 50 people to fight a fire that in a week raced to 76,000 acres.

Then the winds hit. The fires grew by then beyond anything people could fight.

The lungs of animals cooked in the heat. Rocks burned so hot they split. Soils seared to gray ash into the mineral depths, essentially sterilizing the ground.

A dozen families lost their homes. Dennis and Susan Best had just paid off the house they lost in the fire. With time only to grab a few pictures off the walls, they felt lucky even to find their dog.

Assessing damage

Still in shock and grief, the tribes now are assessing the damage to the forests they have depended on for thousands of years for medicines, berries, animals — and the timber that today makes up as much as $10 million of the $45 million annual operating budget for the tribes.

Early estimates count nearly 1 billion board feet of timber worth more than $96 million burned. Here and there, the fire still smolders. But the tribes have already cut more than 1 million board feet so far in a push to eventually salvage as much as 120 million board feet by next summer.

The tribes are cutting as much and as fast as they can, until winter shuts down the hauling. Weather will further degrade the quality of the wood. Prices also are dropping with so much wood on the market, says Cody Desautel, natural-resources director for the tribes. “It’s a race against time.”

Phil Wapato, a forester for the tribes, doesn’t like seeing his work undone. Cutting out the Douglas fir that grew in thick, and replanting the fire-resistant species of larch and ponderosa pine, was intended to make these woods more resistant to fire. The irony is not lost on him that the North Star blaze — which is still under investigation — likely was accidentally caused by a logging crew working in these tinder-dry woods. Their equipment is still there, twisted and blackened.

The tribes have been trying to cut and replant their way out of past management of their lands — where the big, valuable ponderosas were selectively logged, and the woods allowed to grow back, to Douglas fir and other species far more vulnerable to fire.

“We just couldn’t get to this fast enough,” Wapato said, looking at a charred stand that is part of the 93,000 acres burned most severely. It could be generations before these lands recover now. “This is set back basically to zero,” Wapato said.

Beyond price

In a culture where the land is so much more than scenery, some of what was lost in this fire is beyond price. “It’s like your home, your spiritual church, you don’t just up and move to another church,” said Lola Campbell, a cultural-resources expert for the tribes. “Families have been going to these same places for generations.”

Most of the best gathering grounds on the western side of the reservation — including huckleberries, soapberries, strawberries, chokecherries and medicinal plants — were destroyed. Even the beaver lodges in the middle of lakes burned.

People here knew trouble was coming last winter when places that usually saw 3 to 6 feet of snow got only a foot, even at altitudes of 5,000 feet. Then came a week of 100-degree days in June — as many as the tribes usually see in a year.

Streams and ponds were lower than anyone could remember. Gary Passmore, director of the Office of Environmental Trust for the tribes, sees long-term changes in climate taking a toll.

“We haven’t had the snowpack, the soils dry out quicker and stay dry longer,” Passmore said. “Things dry out and when they start burning, they don’t stop.”

With more than a quarter-million acres of critical winter range burned, Justin Dellinger, wildlife biologist for the tribes, worries there could be mass starvation of animals if winter is severe.

This elk carcass shows the animal, its hooves severely burned, was a casualty of wildfires on the Colville Indian Reservation. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
This elk carcass shows the animal, its hooves severely burned, was a casualty of wildfires on the Colville Indian Reservation. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

“It’s just the vastness that is unproductive, devoid of food for at least a year,” Dellinger said. Crowded into what few green reaches of habitat remain, animals out of their territory are acting in ways people here have never seen.

“We’ve had adult deer killed by black bear; that just doesn’t happen,” Dellinger said. “That’s how pressed in they are on each other.”

The tribal business council this month voted to close tribal lands in the burned areas to subsistence hunting, an unprecedented step intended to help conserve a base population of animals that Dellinger hopes can rebuild in perhaps two to three years. The trouble is getting from now to then. “It’s going to be good for cougars and wolves,” he predicted.

The tribes completed an environmental review before the cutting started, but don’t need to take public comment beyond their own members. And many people here depend on the woods for their livelihood, in one way or another.

“The forest will recover; it may take 100 years or more,” said Ernesto Alvarado, an associate professor specializing in wildland fire science at the UW College of Forest Resources. “The tribes won’t be able to recover in one human generation: Those are jobs for many tribal members, that is the only income they may have.”

The tribes will replant as much of the burned and logged land as they can, said Desautel, the tribes’ natural-resources director. But on this scale of destruction, that too will be a struggle, with an estimated 30 million trees needed to replant so large an area. “We do two or three million in our best year,” he said. “We’ll be extremely lucky to get half of it done.”