LOLO – The locomotive rumble of flames has been replaced by the growl of chainsaws in the charred hillsides above Lolo Creek.
Of the 10,800 acres that burned last August, about 7,000 belonged to Plum Creek Timber Co. None of that was slated for near-term harvest, but the Lolo Creek Complex of fires changed the schedule.
“Our goal is to wrap up salvage operations by the first of June,” Plum Creek Northwest Regional Vice President Tom Ray said Friday. “We need to get it before the summer heat impacts the standing dead timber. We’re pushing hard to realize all the value we can.”
Company foresters explored the fire zone this fall and divided it into three categories. Areas with light burning, including the places where fire crews set backburns to slow the main fire’s advance, will be left alone. They comprise about a third of Plum Creek’s Lolo Creek land.
Another third burned so hot, even the flame-adapted lodgepole seed cones didn’t survive. Those will be left alone or reseeded by hand over the next two years.
The final third – somewhat more than 2,000 acres – is being cut for merchantable timber. Ray said the fir and larch trees cut there will go to Plum Creek’s Evergreen plywood plant. Spruce and pine logs get trucked to the Columbia Falls lumber mill to become 1-inch boards. Stud-quality logs and mulching treetops have been sold to Tricon Timber in St. Regis.
“As you drive up Lolo Creek and look to the north and see the canyon face along there, a lot of that is Plum Creek, interspersed with private land,” Ray said. “It’s a mosaic up there like most fire areas. The flames picked up in certain areas and laid down in others. The severity of the fire limited some of the operations. Some areas are almost completely consumed.”
A considerably smaller logging project has concluded on Shari and Gordon Cooper’s Lolo Creek property. When the fire jumped U.S. Highway 12 and ran northeast, it destroyed two of the three homes on their land. It also scorched most of the tall pines around those homes.
“We’ve sent about 95 trees to Pyramid Mountain Lumber,” Shari Cooper said. “We kept a few for firewood. They’re already burned halfway, right? You’ve got to keep a sense of humor.”
The Coopers’ house was the one that survived the fire almost untouched. A rental house across the driveway burned to the foundation. And the home Gordon’s mother lived in practically vanished.
“We’ve put a new mobile home back where his mother’s house was,” Shari said. “We’ve flattened the ground out and cleaned up the rubble. The rest is going to have to wait until the thaw to hook up the water.”
A road heading north into the hills above the Coopers’ house passes five or six miles of fire devastation. Gordon Cooper hunted the area this fall, but saw very little game.
“We’re adapting to the new normal,” Shari said. “It’s hard when you look out the window and there’s mud everywhere. Every time the snow melts, you still see all the debris.”