LUDOWICI — After a wildfire torched most of his 400 acres of rural timberland, Tom Houston hired loggers to quickly harvest whatever blackened pine and cypress they could salvage – stripping the land bare save for a few scattered trees left standing like spent matchsticks.
“It’s nothing now but a desert out there,” Houston said nearly two months after watching helplessly as the blaze raced across 4,035 acres in Long County. “It looks like Nebraska instead of Georgia.”
By the time the loggers finished, they trucked 18,900 tons of wood off Houston’s land bound for the saw mill. The burned logs, plus a glut of other landowners’ charred trees landing on the market, took a big bite out of Houston’s investment. He figures he might have pocketed 20 cents for every dollar his timber would have been worth had the fire spared it.
A state agency said timber owners across Georgia are suffering record losses after nature delivered a nasty one-two punch this spring. First came five large wildfires that swept through several rural counties in late March. A month later, 15 tornadoes tore through middle and northern Georgia, leaving trees shattered and twisted over tens of thousands of acres.
The Georgia Forestry Commission said the two disasters combined wiped out about 193,000 acres – or 301 square miles – of privately owned forest. That’s the largest timber loss from natural disasters ever recorded in the state during a single year, said James Johnson, the agency’s forest management chief.
Much of the ravaged land is owned by large corporations, individual tree farmers and nest-egg investors who grow trees to be harvested for lumber and paper products. Johnson estimated the losses cost Georgia landowners nearly $88 million.
“These kinds of losses out there are unheard of,” Johnson said.
The destruction accounts for a tiny sliver of Georgia’s total commercial forestland, nearly 24 million acres, but it’s still painful. Most private timberland isn’t insured. And while large companies can often absorb the losses, more than 70 percent of Georgia’s commercial timberland is owned by families or individuals. If their trees get wiped out and they have to start over, it can be devastating.
Pine typically takes 15 years after replanting before it can be harvested for pulpwood, which pays the least, and 25 to 30 years before it’s big enough to make more profitable saw timber.
“The average landowner will probably sell their timber only one or two times in a lifetime,” Johnson said. “If you’ve got one crop of trees out there and something like this happens, it really knocks the wind out of you.”
The devastation also affects Georgia timber farmers whose land was unscathed. That’s because the damaged trees have to get to market quickly before disease and bugs ruin the wood.
The rush to saw mills is driving down timber prices that are already low thanks to weak demand for lumber by largely idle homebuilders. Johnson estimates the disasters have forced timber owners to harvest the amount of wood they’d normally sell in a year in just a couple of months.
How much is that hurting prices in Georgia? It’s very hard to tell, because timber prices were already dipping much lower than expected before the fires and tornadoes struck, said Tom Harris, publisher of Timber Mart-South, a publication affiliated with the University of Georgia that monitors timber prices across the southeast.
In the first three months of this year, for example, Georgia pine trees used for 2-by-4 lumber and wood chips were fetching $16.06 per ton – 7 percent less than a year earlier. Since 2006, before the state’s construction boom fizzled, the price has fallen 40 percent from $26.77 per ton.
“The lumber market has been surprisingly weak this year,” Harris said. “Identifying a bubble downward due to the fires and storms is almost impossible, but that’s not to say it doesn’t occur.”
In Brantley County, where wildfires burned 2,225 acres in March, saw mill owner Will Varn said he’s buying as much of the salvaged timber as he can sell, but the supply is overwhelming.
“We’ve had lots of calls from people wanting to sell us burned wood,” Varn said. “The bottleneck on our end is there’s just not any demand to speak of for the lumber. So we’re full of lumber in our yards like everybody else.”
Selling burnt pines for pulpwood has been even tougher, Varn said. Many mills won’t take fire-damaged wood because it leaves unsightly black specks that show up in paper products.
Growers who lost large acreage to tornadoes that struck April 27 and 28 have a different sort of costly disadvantage — trees that have been bent and splintered by storms are no good for sawing into lumber, no matter their size. So those damaged trees have to be sold as pulpwood, which fetches as little as a third of the price of timber used for boards.
Jim Harris, an insurance consultant from Sandy Springs, lost about 100 acres of planted pine on land he owns in Lamar County when a tornado shredded his property last month. He’s salvaging what timber he can, but he said he expects to get “pennies on the dollar” of what his timber would have been worth.
“It’s not going to be a big return, I’ll tell you that,” Harris said. “I’d been saving this forest for my son and his wife and the grandkids so they’d have something to fall back on if they needed to.”