Roseburg offers fire risk reduction to Dunsmuir Elementary

Tony D'Souza
Roseburg Forest Products’ Mike Duguay leads the Dunsmuir Elementary School Board Members on a tour of their 25 acres of land, which haven’t been logged in 85 years. School officials are concerned about the high wildfire risk, and Roseburg has stepped in and offered to thin the school’s trees.

On Friday evening, the Dunsmuir Elementary School Board broke from a special meeting to accompany Roseburg Forest Products’ Mt. Shasta District Forester Mike Duguay on an all-adult field trip.

As the agile Duguay hurried ahead through the school’s 25 heavily wooded acres, the school board members waved away mosquitoes in the fading light and followed behind him on the steep slopes.

The demanding, hour-long hike was no pleasure excursion; Duguay, who had spent the past three days marking trees on the school’s property, had taken the group into the woods to explain exactly why their land is at high risk of wildfire.

Pointing to the thick stands of trees just a stone’s throw from the school’s buildings on the first of many explanatory stops he would make, Duguay told the board members, “When you have all of the same forest type, fires move more quickly through it. This is what we call ‘horizontal continuity.’ All of the trees are the same. This is the result of 90 years of over-growth.”

The school’s land, part of the forested mountainside on the east side of the Sacramento River canyon, was last logged in 1925. Its current state is that same formula of too many small trees, too much forest floor fuel, and no effective way of dealing with it that has led to the fires that have burned 1,000,000 acres in California this summer.

Roseburg, which owns a large tract of timber directly adjacent to the school’s property, will begin a number of clear cuts in the area this week and has offered to thin the school’s trees in exchange for the marketable wood it can extract.

With less than three weeks remaining before the students return for the school year, Duguay has told the school that his company can complete the thinning in, “…five or six working days.”

To this end, the school board is facing a difficult decision. The thinning is an opportunity in the sense that the proposed work is far beyond what the school could otherwise afford, but the difficulty of the terrain offers only two possible means for removing the felled trees.

If Roseburg hauls the trees up the hill for loading on its concession, the extra work may drive the project costs beyond viability. And if the trees are dragged down the hill, which is fuel efficient and cost effective for the company, and stacked on the school’s baseball field for loading, the field, as well as the newly resurfaced school access road to it, will almost certainly be damaged by the company’s heavy trucks and equipment. Those repair costs are outside of the school’s budget.

During the hike, Duguay pointed out areas where the company will log, pending the board’s approval, and described how the forest once looked, and how it will look again once the work is completed. “We won’t be clear-cutting. We’ll be leaving most of the big trees, taking the skinny, suppressed trees. Fifty percent of the trees are potentially merchantable, 50 percent are unmerchantable. Still, we can’t fix 90 years of overgrowth in one fell swoop.”

Through Duguay’s explanations, what might have looked simply like thick stands of trees became “fire ladders,” tangles of wildfire fuel, and bark beetle infection areas. Again and again, the school board members remarked on how dramatic and dangerous a fire would be here should one start.

“If it burns up, the school will go, too,” Mike Michelon, the school’s superintendent said.

Though the property totals 25 acres, only 17 to 20 of those acres would be logged by the company, Duguay explained. A number of stream zones running down from the canyon will be left untouched, as mandated by law. The site of an old mill and its adjacent pond will also remain undisturbed because they constitute “archeological sites.”  

During his three-day survey, Duguay spray painted blue rings around the trees the company will cut, and black rings around those it will leave. By extracting the trees with blue rings, the company will create wide fire breaks between the older trees left standing, as well as between the woods and school itself.

Duguay, who answered questions from the school board and press alike all along the hike, said, “I’m glad to see the press here. I’d like to see television here. Without disclosure, Roseburg could get painted as a ‘greedy timber company’ trying to take advantage of a school… I see lots of opportunities for teaching here. The kids can put in study plots to see how the trees respond to more sun and nutrients. The science kids could come in and help clean up the brush in the stream zones.”

As they followed Duguay out of the woods at the end of the hike, the board members came upon a sight that reinforced everything the timber man had said. In a secluded clump of trees, many of them dead, empty beer cans surrounded the ashes of a recent fire. “This is how fires start,” one of the board members said.  

Back on the school’s basketball court, Duguay left the board members to deliberate as they looked at the trees before them.

“We used to tube down that in the winter,” board member Tony Congi said of the hillside now blanketed with trees. “In 40 years, nothing has been done. All it would take is a grass fire. It’s a stairway all the way up.”

Michelon added, “We have an aerial photo of the school. It’s surrounded by trees. There are trees growing between the buildings. It’s scary how vulnerable we are.”

Before heading into closed session in their meeting room, the board voted unanimously to allow Roseburg to move forward with its proposal, pending an estimate of the project’s costs, including potential damage to the school’s field and asphalt surfaces.

“People see the trees and think it looks pretty,” Michelon offered as a final comment. “It does look pretty. But it is so dangerous.”