Salvage cutting is the removal of trees that have been killed or damaged by insects, disease, wind, ice, snow, volcanic activity, or wildfire. The primary purpose of salvage cutting is to recover the economic value of trees before they decay. Because dead trees decay quickly, the timing of salvage cutting is important to capture as much economic value as possible. Revenue generated from salvage cutting can be used to:
- Reforest the site and promote the development of a new forest
- Resize culverts to handle increased stream flows
- Control invasive weeds
- Seed native plants
- Conduct other restorative/mitigation treatments
Beyond generating revenue, post-fire salvage cutting can also help manage fuels and future fire behavior, as long as logging slash is treated after the harvest. Removal of hazardous standing dead fuel also contributes to firefighter safety.
Dead trees are fuel, and fuel is one of three components that affect fire behavior (how fast a fire spreads and how hot it burns); the other two components are topography and weather. Let’s put aside topography and weather for the moment and discuss an example of how fuels might change after, for example, a bark beetle epidemic. How would those fuels influence the short- and long-term fire behavior and severity? Consider the following fuel sequence following a bark beetle epidemic:
- As trees die from the bark beetle infestation, green foliage turns red and dries out. If a wildfire occurs at this stage, it can result in a severe crown fire.
- After the needles fall off of the beetle-killed trees (within 2 years), crown fuels diminish and there is no longer a threat of crown fire; however, a surface fire could be sustained.
- Over the next decade, as trees decay and break off or fall over each other, they become “jackstrawed,” collecting on the forest floor. During this time, an abundance of woody fuels accumulates. As grasses, shrubs, and trees begin to regenerate during the first decade after beetle kill, more potential fuel is added to the mix. This combination of light and heavy fuels can easily sustain a surface fire. Large logs can burn for long periods, particularly if the wood is rotten, heating the soil and damaging the soil structure, nutrients, wettability, and microorganisms. On steep slopes, this type of soil damage can lead to run-off, erosion, and debris flows, causing sedimentation and other problems for water quality and fish.
- Over time, young trees will grow into a mature forest. A wildfire at this point can be stand replacing, meaning the fire could spread through tree crowns and the heavy understory fuel (even though it is somewhat decayed), resulting in a severe wildfire.
By removing dead and dying trees in a salvage cutting operation, forest managers can help prevent the jackstraw condition and the potential for severe soil and watershed damage. The chance of smoke emissions from a wildfire are also diminished. If the area is reforested or allowed to naturally regenerate (assuming enough seed trees are present), removing heavy fuels in a salvage operation and removing harvest slash prior to planting can reduce the potential that young forests will be severely affected by a future wildfire.
While salvage cutting decreases the heavy fuels on the ground, it can increase the amount of branches and tops on the forest floor from cutting fire-killed trees. This temporarily increases the amount of small/fine woody fuels (less than 5 inches in diameter) that could support a surface fire. To reduce the risk of a surface fire after salvage cutting, these small/light surface fuels should be piled up and burned so they do not add to long-term fire hazards.
It’s important to note that, like any timber harvest, there can be other effects of salvage cutting that need to be avoided or minimized. These include compacting soil, contributing to erosion and excessive disturbance, introducing invasive weeds, maintaining stream and water quality, and preserving wildlife habitat. Salvage cutting needs to be carefully planned to avoid or minimize negative impacts.
Agnes, M.C., T. Woolley, and S.A. Fitzgerald. 2016. Fire severity and cumulative disturbance effects in the post-mountain pine beetle lodgepole pine forests of the Pole Creek Fire. Forest Ecology and Management, 366: 73–86.
Cowan, A.D., J.E. Smith, and S.A. Fitzgerald. 2016. Recovering lost ground: Effects of soil burn intensity on nutrients and ectomycorrhiza communities of ponderosa pine seedlings. Forest Ecology and Management, 378: 160–172.
Donato, D.C., J.B. Fontaine, J.B. Kauffman, and W.D. Robinson. 2013. Fuel mass and forest structure following stand-replacement fire and post-fire logging in a mixed-evergreen forest. International Journal of Wildland Fire, 22: 652–666.
Fitzgerald, S.A. 2002. Chapter 7- Post-fire salvage cutting and rehabilitation treatments. In Fitzgerald, S.A, (ed.) Fire in Oregon’s Forests: Risks, Effects, and Treatment Options. Oregon Forest Resources Institute Special Report, Portland, OR., 164.
Helvey, J.D. 1980. Effects of a north central Washington wildfire on runoff and sediment production. Water Resources Bulletin, 16: 627-634.
Jenkins, M.J., E. Hebertson, W. Page, and C.A. Jorgensen. 2008. Bark beetles, fuels, fires and implications for forest management in the Intermountain West. Forest Ecology and Management, 254: 16–34.
Johnson, M.C., J.E. Halofsky, and D.L. Peterson. 2013. Effects of salvage cutting and pile-and-burn on fuel loading, potential fire behaviour, fuel consumption and emissions. International Journal of Wildland Fire, 22: 757–769.
Lowell, E.C. and J.M. Cahill. 1996. Deterioration of fire-killed timber in southern Oregon and northern California. Western Journal of Applied Forestry, 11(14): 125-131.
Monsanto, P.G., and J.K. Agee. 2008. Long-term post-wildfire dynamics of coarse woody debris after salvage cutting and implications for soil heating in dry forests of the eastern Cascades, Washington. Forest Ecology and Management, 255: 3952–3961.
Parry, D.L., G.M. Filip, S.A. Willits, and C.G. Parks. 1996. Lumber recovery and deterioration of beetle-killed Douglas-fir and grand fir in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. General Technical Report PNW-GTR-376. USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, Portland, OR.
Peterson, D.W., E.K. Dodson, and R.J. Harrod. 2015. Post-fire logging reduces surface woody fuels up to four decades following wildfire. Forest Ecology and Management, 338:84-91.
Peterson, D., L., J.K. Agee, G.H. Aplet, D.P. Dykstra, R.T. Graham, J.F. Lehmkuhl, D.S. Pilliod, D.F. Potts, R.F. Powers, and J.D. Stuart. 2009. Effects of Timber Harvest Following Wildfire in Western North America. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-776. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, 51.
Smith, J.E., L.A. Kluber, T.N. Jennings, D. McKay, G. Brenner, and E.W. Sulzman. 2017. Does the presence of large down wood at the time of a forest fire impact soil recovery? Forest Ecology and Management, 391: 52-62
Tinsley, C. and D.L. Peterson. 2012. Surface fuel treatments in young, regenerating stands affect wildfire severity in a mixed conifer forest, eastside Cascade Range, Washington, USA. Forest Ecology and Management, 270: 117–125.
Thompson, J.R., T.A. Spies, and L.N. Ganio. Reburn severity in managed and unmanaged vegetation in a large wildfire. Proceedings National Academy Sciences, 104: 10743-10748.
© 2018 Oregon State University.
Extension work is a cooperative program of Oregon State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Oregon counties. Oregon State University Extension Service offers educational programs, activities, and materials without discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity (including gender expression), sexual orientation, disability, age, marital status, familial/parental status, income derived from a public assistance program, political beliefs, genetic information, veteran’s status, reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Oregon State University Extension Service is an AA/EOE/Veterans/Disabled.