GREENVILLE Four years after the Moonlight fire roared through 65,000 acres of forest near this Plumas County town, the damage continues to sear the rural community.
A local logger is challenging the U.S. Forest Service about logs removed from the burned area.
How this dispute is resolved could affect the economic future of this timber-dependent town, and local leaders are waiting on the outcome of a meeting today between the logger and the agency's regional forester to try to resolve the issue.
Randy Pew, owner of the logging company that bought the charred timber, has criticized the Forest Service for "grossly erroneous estimates" of the quantity and quality of the material he harvested to sell to a local sawmill.
The agency overestimated the volume of marketable logs by as much as 90 percent, Pew said.
In August, he filed a claim with the Forest Service for partial damages totaling $375,725. He plans to file another one claiming damages of an additional $1 million or more, he said.
"Their estimates were off by thousands of truckloads of logs," said Pew. He was recognized by the Forest Resources Association as national outstanding logger of 2001.
Forest Service officials in California have rejected Pew's claim, citing loggers' responsibility to make their own estimates of the material available before submitting bids to buy it.
An independent review, conducted by a forester with the Forest Service in Oregon, upheld the findings of agency officials in California. While his Dec. 16 report cites "likely" underestimates of the incense cedar harvested, Steven R. Nelson found no mistakes made by Plumas National Forest officials.
That leaves Pew facing the threat of bankruptcy.
If the Forest Service refuses to acknowledge its estimate errors and share the losses over harvesting the timber burned in the Moonlight fire, Pew Forest Products will be out of business, he said.
"I'm at the end of my rope," said Pew, who has been buying Forest Service timber for 34 years.
Pew Forest Products is the largest private employer in Indian Valley and plays a significant role in Plumas County's timber-based economy.
If Pew's company goes down, it will take 30 local jobs with it. The ripple effect would hurt other businesses and local schools, already threatened with closures due to declining enrollment.
"I want to save my home and my life, but I'm also worried about all these people and my community," Pew said.
Plumas Forest officials are sympathetic with Pew's plight and its potential for far-reaching effects, said Laurence Crabtree, deputy forest supervisor.
"This company has treated thousands of acres of ground for this forest and the public. We need companies like this for fuels management and timber harvesting," Crabtree said.
Although they disagree on the issues, Crabtree said he respects Pew's campaign to keep his business alive: "He's fighting for his company and his way of life. He and his family are hardworking people who feel strongly about their community and their profession."
Pew was the only bidder on a 7 million board-foot sale of trees along 21 miles of road within the Moonlight burn. The contract allowed him to log additional areas and Pew eventually harvested around 37 million board feet enough wood for building 3,700 single-family houses.
The terms of the contract emphasized the responsibility of the bidder to make his own evaluation of the quantity and condition of timber in the additional areas, Crabtree said. The agency expects bidders to "go out there and look for themselves" rather than to depend on Forest Service estimates, he said.
Pew said years of experience with agency estimates of timber volume have given him confidence in them, so he did not make his own estimates.
"We trusted them. I had no reason to believe the Forest Service volumes would be off," he said.
But the trees he logged by helicopter last winter had deteriorated in the three years since the fire. The poor quality of the cedar forced him to cover twice the ground and devote four months to a logging operation he expected to take six weeks, he said.
Pew estimated that he spent around $10 million for work that should have cost half that amount.
While the Forest Services uses scientific tables to estimate deterioration by species, it has no table for cedar, the species with the most economic value, Crabtree said.
Pew said the agency's estimates for the value of the cedar he logged were off by as much as 90 percent.
"Cedar was my hope to survive, and it just killed me," he said.
Crabtree said the agency's depreciation evaluation process was appropriate.
Left in a standoff with the Forest Service, Pew has taken his case to politicians. The Plumas County Board of Supervisors has sent letters supporting him to Tom Tidwell, chief of the Forest Service, as well as the county's federal representatives.
He is scheduled to meet today with Regional Forester Randy Moore.
Crabtree declined to speculate on what might result from the meeting between Moore and Pew. "Let's just let Randy and Randy talk," he said.
Meanwhile, two jury trials later this year will determine who should assume financial responsibility for the fire.
About 2,500 firefighters were involved in fighting the Moonlight fire, which destroyed two structures and five outbuildings. Both the Forest Service and Cal Fire are seeking damages for the costs of suppressing the blaze, estimated at $31.5 million.
Defendants in the separate cases include Sierra Pacific industries, W.M. Beatty and Associates; Howell's Forest Harvesting; and several individuals.
A federal jury trial is scheduled for April 16 in the Eastern District of U.S. District Court in Sacramento.
The Cal Fire case is scheduled for an Aug. 14 jury trial in Quincy.