LUDOWICI, Ga. --- 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 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 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 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 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.
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 devastation also affects Georgia timber farmers whose land was unscathed, 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 low thanks to weak demand for lumber by largely idle homebuilders.