MotherJones MA93: Firetrail

Are loggers behind the rash of fires in the West?

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“When you have eliminated the impossible,” said Sherlock Holmes, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” A century later, the art of detecting wildland arson relies on just such negative reasoning. Holmesian methodology was how, for example, state investigator Paul Bertagna concluded that last summer’s Barker Fire, which scorched 5,600 acres of brushy timberland near Hayfork, Calif., was the handiwork of an arsonist, and one with a purpose.

Bertagna, an officer with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CDF), located the origin of the fire in a blackened patch of brush three feet in diameter near Barker Creek. First, he eliminated the possibility of natural and accidental causes. There had been no lightning strikes, nor had a power line fallen. The burn began in uninhabited woodland near a rutted, seldom-used road, making it very unlikely that a passing vehicle could have sent a spark into the forest. And even if a defective vehicle had kicked up sparks, they would have set the grass aflame along a length of road, not at just one spot.

Like Holmes himself, Bertagna whipped out a magnifying glass and got down on his hands and knees to search for clues as microscopic as the ashen remains of a match head. After an inch-by-inch search, Bertagna was covered with soot but certain that there was no cigarette or match at the site.

Bertagna knew that somebody had been trying to start a fire near Hayfork all summer. There had been about a dozen attempts, all on steep, fire-encouraging slopes with poor access, and every one lit by a device–probably a pocket lighter–that could be carried away, leaving no clues. Until the Barker Fire, all the attempts had been quickly suppressed or had never taken off.

Bertagna concluded not only that the fire was arson, but also that it had been set to create employment in the recession-hit Hayfork area. Mills had been closing in densely wooded, sparsely populated Shasta and Trinity counties, costing the region an estimated 1,250 jobs. As the logging industry declined, fear and anger were palpable. A fire would offer work for that independent breed of people that sees itself, not the northern spotted owl, as an endangered species. There would be work fighting the fire and repairing the damage it caused, but more importantly, there would be work logging the dead trees that the fire left in its wake.

Trees can be “salvaged” for one of two reasons: because they are burned or because they are sick. In either case, the trees may be logged with less environmental review, and for this reason, salvage sales have become the logging industry’s preferred method of acquiring increasingly protected federal timber. In 1988, salvage sales of fire-damaged or diseased trees accounted for 20 percent of the timber logged from U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands. By 1992, largely because of an overall decrease in timber sales, salvages made up 55 percent of the total.

The massive Fountain Fire, which burned simultaneously with the Barker Fire about sixty-five miles to the east, blackened 65,000 acres–but created a boomtown atmosphere. Roseburg Forest Products, which had announced that it would be closing its Anderson sawmills and throwing 450 employees out of work, canceled the closure to salvage 25,000 acres of charred but still-valuable timber. Mills as far away as Stockton, where P&M Cedar Products had already pink-slipped about 120 workers, were temporarily saved by salvage work.

In the wake of the fire, there was also work for erosion control crews, linemen, and road builders. Trailers and tents were sold as temporary shelter to the 330 families who lost their houses, and contractors were hired to build replacement homes–out of timber.

As much as $1 million a day is spent controlling a fire, points out Douglas Bennett, fire chief of Weaverville, Trinity County’s seat of government. “Much of this money filters back into the community. A [firefighting] equipment owner can earn enough to make it through the rest of the year.” Suppressing forest fires in California during 1992 put well over $100 million into the pockets of people who needed it.

“I recently heard a saying,” Bennett adds. “‘The blacker the forest, the greener the paycheck.'”

In 1992 there were over 1,100 wildland arson fires in California alone, up 280 from the previous year. In Oregon’s timber-dependent Klamath County, wildland arson has become so common that a federal and state task force was formed to study the problem. As some environmentalists put it: If the government won’t let you log a living tree, get them to call it dead; if they won’t call it dead, burn it.

“The Barker Fire was set to burn timber,” concluded Paul Bertagna. “There’s a lot of hardship in that area, and every one of those fires in Hayfork this summer was to burn timber.”

To reach Hayfork, you head west out of Redding in northern California and climb steadily for about forty miles until you pick up sinuous California Highway 3, following it across Hayfork Summit at 3,660 feet. There are no stoplights along the way–in fact, not a single stoplight anywhere in Trinity County, which is the size of Connecticut and home to about 13,000 people.

Trinity was the only county in California to be carried by Ross Perot, which says something about its independent nature. That choice was all the more surprising, given that George Bush had been a good friend to the timber interests.

During a fall campaign swing through the Pacific Northwest in the wake of large forest fires in Oregon, Idaho, and California, Bush announced an emergency order increasing tenfold–from 100,000 to 1 million board feet–the amount of timber that can be logged because of fire or disease with even less environmental review than is required for regular salvage sales.

This leap in the size of the so-called categorical exclusion, pushed by the Wise Use movement and Dan Quayle’s Council on Competitiveness, had been made public in draft form as early as April 1991. But the plan had been shelved after many newspapers criticized its environmental consequences. The presidential campaign blew away any caution; in the weeks prior to Bush’s emergency order, the timber industry had placed full-page ads urging, “Salvage the dead and dying timber. Before time runs out.”

“It was totally political,” says Jeff St. Clair, editor of Forest Watch, a public land issues newsletter.

The commonly heard wisdom is that burned timber holds its health for about a year, after which fungus and insects swiftly erode its value. But that maxim may be a ploy to increase the urgency to salvage and, essentially, meet logging quotas.

In fact, says Brian Hunt of the Oregon-based Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (AFSEEE), “salvage logging has become the principal means of meeting timber limits. It is making up the cut.” Bush’s million-foot exclusion “was intended to open up woods and get into these areas” via salvage logging, according to Hunt. “For the Forest Service to reward illegal conduct is inappropriate and a very dangerous public policy.”

A million board feet, enough to build about 100 homes, is small in the overall picture. But the significance of the Bush directive lies in two areas, according to environmentalists. First, by increasing the amount exempted from environmental review, it facilitates building logging roads into roadless areas where there is a salvage sale. Once a road is in, it effectively precludes the forest from being declared an official wilderness area, thus leaving it open for future logging.

The increase in the categorical exclusion also encourages the division of salvage areas into a series of contiguous lots of under one million board feet each, potentially opening up significant areas to logging with virtually no environmental oversight. “Based on past history, that’s what we’ll start seeing in February, probably in eastern Oregon and central western Idaho,” says St. Clair. “That’s what we’re really concerned about.”

“We’ve had a number of situations where we’ve been able to utilize [Bush’s directive],” chuckled Steve Paulson of the USFS Portland office. “We’ve found it quite handy.” Paulson initially told me that his job title was Assistant Director of Timber Sales. Later, he asked that sales be changed to management.

Only a week after Bush’s emergency order, an internal USFS memo described how Northwest Regional Forester John Lowe had chastised rangers for not getting out “the cut.” According to the memo, Lowe told the rangers that if the cut couldn’t come from the West Coast because of spotted owl restrictions, then it “had to be gotten somewhere else.” Uncooperative rangers would be “moved.”

By November, local rangers, aided by an additional two hundred dispatched to drought-stricken eastern Oregon, had raised by one-third their previous estimation of the number of trees that needed salvaging. Among these trees were some of the increasingly popular “pre-salvage” salvages–healthy trees cut down because they were in danger of becoming ill.

There is no doubt that some salvage is necessary. But when rangers are under such heavy pressure to get the cut out, abuses are inevitable. A December USFS memo told rangers in eastern Oregon that “even if a sale is totally green, as long as one board comes off that would qualify as salvage…it should be called Salvage. It’s a political thing.”

One particular instance of salvage logging did not sit well with Eric Forsman, a USFS biologist in Corvallis, Oregon. He told the Register- Guard in Eugene that salvage logging the 9,700 acres of protected northern spotted owl habitat that had been burned by the arson-caused Warner Creek Fire might provide incentive for setting other fires in owl preserves as a way to open them to logging.

The timber industry reacted with fury, and Forest Service chief Dale Robertson reprimanded the biologist. Forsman was forced to write an abject apology to “all the honest, hard-working loggers.”

The priorities of those actually fighting wildland fires are changing, too–although this is rarely acknowledged in public. The trend is now for firefighters to pay special attention to the protection of saplings planted in the aftermath of a clearcut, which are seen as the timber industry’s future. According to Timothy Ingalsbee of Cascadia’s Earth First!, mustering lines to protect saplings also means deciding to leave old growth unprotected to burn, in some cases even actively encouraging the fire to spread into roadless old-growth stands.

CDF and USFS officials, Trinity County contractors, and businesspeople all talked to me about how economic incentive has made the relation between salvage sales and job-hunting fires common knowledge. People take it for granted and talk about it among themselves in the mountain towns where life is free, harsh, and masculine. Joe Silva, an experienced member of the California Arson Investigations Unit within the CDF, explained to me one reason this truth is never publicly acknowledged.

“We work closely with the timber industry,” Silva said. “We don’t want to hurt the whole overall occupation, our industry. If we told all the benefits of fires, and the ways to do it, and the ways to get away with it, we’d probably only get an increase in arsons.”

Hayfork sits at 2,500 feet, and the first things you see as you enter the town are the stacks of the Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) mill belching plumes of white steam into the crisp morning air. The decks in the mill’s yard look full to an unpracticed eye, but the county’s timber harvest fell 75 percent last year. Unemployment in Hayfork is at 13 percent–and climbing.

At the far end of town is Alice’s Restaurant, famed for its coconut custard pie, where sooner or later you see everyone and hear everything–or at least everything people want you to hear.

You hear how in the winter of 1991, Red Emmerson, whose 1.1 million acres make him California’s largest landowner, closed the SPI mill for about a month, throwing a scare into Hayfork. The attitude toward Emmerson, a folksy man who wears a twelve-foot tape measure on the belt of his worn jeans (yet was able to pay nearly half a billion dollars for Southern Pacific’s timber holdings), is worshipful, motivated no doubt by admiration as well as fear. His mill, which generates about half the town’s $20 million annual payroll, is tooled for big logs only, the very old growth that is protected habitat for the spotted owl. Townspeople are afraid that the mill may close again this winter–or worse, shut forever.

You hear how Trinity County has almost no tax base because three- quarters of its land is federally owned; the USFS sustains the county with 25 percent of its timber receipts.

You hear how the only doctor in town is retiring, and how nobody can be found to take his place in isolated, poverty-stricken Hayfork.

But most of all, you get an earful about the hated symbol of environmentalism, the spotted owl. The restaurant’s owner, Alice Ackerly, presiding over a corner table with coffee and cigarette, sometimes loses all patience with city people.

“It’s not like they think, down in the big cities, that there isn’t any timber anymore,” she says. The problem, according to her, is that on May 23, 1991, U.S. District Judge William L. Dwyer, responding to a suit led by the Audubon Society, halted timber sales on suitable owl habitats, which include virtually all the federal land in Trinity County.

“We need our timber dollar back,” Alice says, her face purpling with anger and frustration. “Sierra Club, those people, they’re preservationists without humanity. We’re environmentalists, we care about our woods, they’re our only renewable resource. But people have to work.”

These are the kinds of things people talk about in Alice’s Restaurant, where the folks are hospitable but desperate, and where the whole truth is doled out less generously than the coconut custard pie. One thing an outsider is not likely to hear about is the water-tender glut.

During the lightning-induced fires of 1987, there weren’t enough water trucks in Trinity County. So all of a sudden forty or fifty men took out big loans and got themselves water tenders costing anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000.

The trucks sit idle most of the time. But during last summer’s Barker and Fountain fires, the state paid $1,375 a day per truck and two drivers. The president of the Hayfork Chamber of Commerce, a millworker named Robert Young, told me that he grossed $14,695 in eight days on the Barker Fire. In all likelihood, a lot of truck owners paid off heavy loans around that time.

Tiny Hayfork was a symbol of the struggle over who will have control of the nation’s depleted forests even before Pat Buchanan invoked the town’s troubles at the Republican convention. Buchanan’s visit to Hayfork was engineered by a logger’s wife named Nadine Bailey, who has emerged as a spokeswoman for the hurt, baffled families in the area.

If it was the unchecked greed of the timber companies that brought these loggers to the brink of ruin, nowadays it’s the environmental movement’s efforts to restore balance in the forest that keeps them feeling desperate. In Hayfork, a one-mill town where Red Emmerson and SPI are unchallenged, all the blame is heaped on the environmentalists. After all, it’s not human nature to bite the hand that feeds you–and helps build the Little League field as well.

“Red’s probably one of the most ruthless businessmen around, but he has a heart,” says Nadine Bailey. “I’d have shut the mill down if I was him. But he cares about the people. What makes that mill survive is that he’s the best businessman he can be. I want him to be ruthless.”

A logger’s daughter herself, Bailey is a tall, brown-skinned woman who always seems to have a book under her arm. At the time of Judge Dwyer’s injunction, Bailey was content to stay home with her two kids and handle the office end of a small tree-felling firm.

“I remember it very well,” she says. “One day we had a business, and then the next day we didn’t. I kept thinking that somebody else was going to stand up and fight for us. I learned that somebody else was me.”

The first time she spoke at a rally, a local paper reported that her voice was quavering as she told the crowd, “Every year we’re asked to give up a bigger and bigger chunk of land that we make our livelihood from. We need to tell them, ‘No more.’ If we don’t do something very soon, this is going to be a ghost town.”

Bailey has since become the vice president of Women in Timber, giving speeches from Hawaii to Washington. A Hayfork businessperson, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid possible reprisals, calls Bailey “a hired gun for western timber interests.”

But it’s the people, not the timber interests, who are capable of concentrating an intimidating anger on those who seem to be against them. In the spring of 1990, as hard times blew into the valley, a young teacher new to Hayfork made a particularly poor error in judgment. In an Earth Day celebration that was attended by most of the town, Nancy Lamb had her class put on a skit in which the son of a Hayfork logger portrayed the greed of Brazilian timber interests by cutting down the last tree in the rain forest.

“The parents went unglued,” recalls Nadine Bailey. “It hurt a lot of families, it really did. A bunch of parents went to the school board and it became a big deal.”

Nancy Lamb has since married and taken the name Jackson, but she is still afraid to talk about what happened. She made two appointments to speak with me but showed up for neither.

Bailey seems ashamed of what happened. “I stayed out of it,” she says. But the recollections of others are different. The local businessperson critical of Bailey says the incident was the real birth of Women in Timber.

“All these timber mamas rushed down to the school, Nadine at the head of them. Nadine’s big–it was very intimidating. There were all these meetings behind closed doors, very scary.

“It was horrible for Nancy. She didn’t know whether she’d be run out of town, strung up, or what. She learned a lesson–keep your mouth shut.”

Townsfolk are also pretty silent about the brutal lives some of them live.

“Spousal abuse will come up again this winter the way it always does when the woods are shut down,” says Chuck Sanborn, the deputy sheriff of Trinity County and unofficial police chief of Hayfork. “When the economy takes a dump, the kids take a beating. It’s real sad. We’ve got seven or eight people who committed child abuse in prison right now–a lot.

“Sure, I have a hard time,” he says, “believing my hard-working friends and neighbors would go out and set a fire. But then I have a tough time believing my friends and neighbors abuse their kids, and they do.”

The implications are clear to Don Williams, a Trinity County Mental Health Services psychologist who sees patients in Hayfork two days a week. “A lot of people who come to rural, isolated areas come because they don’t like stoplights, they don’t like a cop on every corner, they don’t like people telling them what to do. Boundary issues are a real key to understanding what happens,” Williams says. “They extend to whether we beat our wives, beat our kids, whether if we feel sexual we grab whoever’s available.

“[Loggers] work real hard, they get dirty and sweaty, they accomplish something real useful from their point of view. They say, ‘We’ve been cutting this way a long time; we’ll just continue to do that.’ They don’t see boundaries in that either, don’t understand boundaries at all. So when they’re [economically] threatened the way they are…” Will-iams trails off, but then adds, “It all gets blurred. Nobody likes a fire. Everybody wants a fire.”

Nadine Bailey and her friend Keith McCollum, whose J&K Logging Company employs about fifty people and sells almost all the 35 million board feet it cuts to the SPI mill, took me out to see the forest in McCollum’s pickup.

“Those people in fire suppression blame us for everything,” said Bailey dismissively. “They blame us for global warming. I’m surprised they haven’t blamed us for AIDS yet.”

Besides, she continued, if a logger had started the fire in Hayfork he wouldn’t have started it in that brushy second growth near Barker Creek. Her husband, Wally, had made the same point to me earlier.

“That was all pecker poles, what our kids are going to log,” Wally said. “If I’d have done it–and I wouldn’t–I’d do it out in the wilderness in timber that was overripe. I know a lot of people are thinking the timber industry’s probably behind it, and it’s not a bad idea to scare people, but it’s not true.”

But both Paul Bertagna and Karyn Wood, the USFS ranger in Hayfork, point out that if the barometric pressure hadn’t been very low that August afternoon, stirring a strong wind out of the west, the fire would almost immediately have raged through some of the biggest old- growth stands remaining in California.

Bertagna’s investigation of the Barker Fire has gone nowhere. “There’s a $5,000 reward for the Barker Fire, and we’ve not received a single phone call,” he said. “It’s a very tight community, very difficult to focus on anyone.”

But Bertagna had not talked to Deputy Sheriff Sanborn since the first night of the fire. Sanborn says he gave Bertagna the names of some people he heard had been around the origin of the fire who “shouldn’t have been there.” The leads apparently didn’t check out, and as of December, four months after the August blaze, the two cops had not spoken again.

“I’ll have to talk to him this winter,” Sanborn said when I brought it up.

The possibility of paid fire-starters is discussed among investigators, but seldom publicly. State investigator Joe Silva stopped dead in his tracks when I asked him if he knew of cases, prosecuted or not, where timber companies or owners paid someone to torch a forest in order to open it to logging.

“I wouldn’t want to grab ahold of that with a long pole,” he said.

“I know they try to put a good face on it,” says Steve Ryberg, the USFS fire manager. “That the good people of Hayfork or wherever would never destroy our own backyards. But I don’t know if it’s the ones getting dirty, setting the fires. I think it’s the person who knows how to make money out of it without going out there getting soot on their faces.”

In at least one case, a company president was prosecuted for doing just that. In the early eighties, the president of a company involved with firefighting and timber hauling in northern California, near Redding, was suspected of hiring a man to set over three hundred job- hunting fires on CDF and USFS lands. Although the firebug was convicted (one piece of evidence against him being a map of the fires that he’d kept to make sure he was properly paid), the company president was eventually acquitted of criminal charges. The state subsequently filed a civil suit against the man, who finally agreed to a “sealed settlement,” under which no one could give out details concerning the case without being held in contempt of court. Sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, however, said that the company president had agreed to reimburse the state for the cost of fighting all of the fires.

Few wildland arson cases ever even come to trial–and occasionally the USFS seems reluctant to acknowledge them at all. Oregon’s Warner Creek Fire, for instance, was originally determined to be arson, possibly set to create logging work. It was, after all, in an area where it’s not unheard of for environmentalists to find spotted owls nailed to their doors.

The arson determination went unchallenged until Willamette Park Supervisor Darrel Kenops decided to salvage more than ten times the amount of lumber his own scientists said would be environmentally sound. When the public questioned the wisdom of not only rewarding arson but rewarding it so richly, Kenops decided that the fire might not have been deliberately set after all, despite his own investigators’ findings.

After another public outcry, accusing Kenops of trying to defuse the issue, he reversed himself and admitted that it was an arson-set fire. But that’s all. Two years after the fire, investigators refuse to speculate on the motive of the crime or release any information. The investigation, as they say, is ongoing.

“What’s happening to my society is cultural genocide,” says Nadine Bailey. “I’ve got nothing left to compromise with. Some well-meaning environmentalists came along in the 1970s and said, ‘You should set aside some forest and never touch it.’ We said, ‘No problem, we got the Trinity Alps wilderness,’ and then we went back to work.

“A few years later they came back and said, ‘We’d like certain areas to stay roadless.’ We said, ‘We got lots up here, sure.’ Then they carved out a huge corridor along the south fork of the Trinity [River]. That was a big fight.”

And then came Judge Dwyer’s injunction. “I’m done compromising,” Bailey steams. “It’s like feeding the alligator. You’ve served them all your brothers and sisters and now it’s down to you.”

But others point to the timber industry’s greed. “If the forest had been managed on a sustained-yield basis,” says the anonymous local businessperson, “if [the timber industry] had cut no more than they could reforest, there would be an industry today, but not at the traditional level they want to cut. They want to do what they want to do.”

Red Emmerson more or less agreed during an interview. “I don’t know anything wrong we’ve done–I’d better take that back,” he said. “We didn’t break laws. But it’s a competitive world and we took out what we could.”

The day before Emmerson talked to me, the workers at SPI’s Hayfork mill, who had been dreading a second consecutive winter shutdown, were told that because the market was suddenly up, it was time to clear the full decks. Extra hours and shifts would begin immediately.

“I figure we’ll go full-bore,” Emmerson explained. “If we’re going off the cliff we might as well go full-bore.”

On my last night in Hayfork, I had a drink with Keith McCollum and Wally Bailey in Tommy’s Joynt, a place where the bartender doesn’t ask if you want a glass with your Bud. A winter storm was swirling across Hayfork Summit, and the woods were beginning to shut down.

Why life should be kicking them in the shins–people who work hard providing something as basic and irreplaceable as timber–is difficult to understand for McCollum, who followed his father into the logging business. Keith and Wally are the last people in the world who would torch a forest to get a job. But their fears and blunt animosities toward the outside world could tilt the minds of weaker people in an illegal direction.

Still, the main blame for job-hunting fires is hardly these people’s to shoulder. When George Bush and USFS officials push rangers to get the cut out at all costs, they do their part to encourage fires. When law enforcement scratches its head and doesn’t find who’s to blame, it plays a role in letting the arson continue. And when a conspiracy of silence exists to cover up what almost everybody discusses privately, a highly flammable mixture has been brewed.

Whether intentionally or not, the policies of the Forest Service, the bottom-line mentality of the timber industry, and the desperation of loggers and small contractors have combined in the American West to create an atmosphere in which job-hunting fires make perfect economic sense.

Mike Weiss is a staff writer at West, the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News. He is also the author of the Ben Henry detective series and the Edgar-winning nonfiction book, Double Play. Stewart Lee Allen contributed additional reporting to this story.


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Mother Jones was founded to do things differently in the aftermath of a political crisis: Watergate. We stand for justice and democracy. We reject false equivalence. We go after, and go deep on, stories others don’t. And we’re a nonprofit newsroom because we knew corporations and billionaires would never fund the journalism we do. Our reporting makes a difference in policies and people’s lives changed.

And we need your support like never before to vigorously fight back against the existential threats American democracy and journalism face. We’re running behind our online fundraising targets and urgently need all hands on deck right now. We can’t afford to come up short—we have no cushion; we leave it all on the field.

Please help with a donation today if you can—even just a few bucks helps. Not ready to donate but interested in our work? Sign up for our Daily newsletter to stay well-informed—and see what makes our people-powered, not profit-driven, journalism special.

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