Partly in response to these fires and others on national forest land elsewhere in the West, President Bush introduced the Healthy Forest Initiative in 2002 to reduce the wildfire threat to towns surrounded by publicly owned forests. As work crews thin stands of trees, as called for in the initiative, one result has been a glut of logs smaller than eight inches in diameter.
Until recently, most small trees were collected in piles and burned, but now businesses and the Forest Service have begun looking for uses for the tiny trees.
''It's high cost, low value and a lot of pieces to handle, which takes time and effort,'' said Dave Atkins, head of the Forest Service's Fuels for Schools program for several Western states.
Although loggers might receive $90 a ton for house logs, Mr. Atkins said, they are paid less than half that for smaller trees.
Slowly, however, the small-diameter movement, helped along by federal grants and Forest Service research, is helping to find new uses for smaller trees, like heating schools and hospitals and construction materials, including particle board, flooring and laminated beams.
Peter Stark of Missoula, a freelance writer, wanted to thin his 80 acres of forest clogged with downed timber and crowded trees to prevent a fire but could not afford to do it, since clearing usually costs $300 to $1,000 an acre.
He eventually found someone to remove the trees, most six or seven inches across, and the money he was paid for them covered the cost of thinning.
At the same time, he was building a dance floor for his wife, Amy Ragsdale, who teaches dance at the University of Montana. Shocked at the cost of hardwood, Mr. Stark realized that he might be able to turn the waste trees into flooring.
Mr. Stark bought back 25 tons of the larch trees and found a custom sawmill that could handle small diameters to turn them into tongue-and-groove flooring. The floor turned out so well that Mr. Stark formed a company, North Slope Sustainable Wood, with two partners, to market small diameter larch, the hardest of the soft woods, from forests being thinned.
He sees such activity as a solution to the controversy over logging in Western forests.
''I'm a tree hugger,'' he said. ''If we can take the small trees and leave the big ones, the loggers and environmentalists are both happy.''
Significant numbers of Westerners see small trees as the future of the timber industry, simply because there are so few big trees left.
''Years ago, we utilized logs that were mostly over 50 inches in diameter,'' said Gordy Sanders, resource manager for Pyramid Lumber in Seeley Lake, which has retooled to use small-diameter timber. ''Now, if we see one of those a year we're amazed.''
Another project, at the Forest Service's laboratory at the State and Private Technology Marketing Unit in Madison, Wis., used small-diameter trees in a new library here, in the town that bore the brunt of the fires.
''This library was a response to the fires,'' Veryl Kosteczko, chairwoman of the library board, said as she pointed out the roof beams that are all six inches or so in diameter. ''We utilized underutilized wood that used to be left as trash.''
Another use of small logs is as biomass to be turned into fuel. Under its Fuels for Schools program, the Forest Service is giving grants up to $400,000 for schools and other public buildings to build furnaces that burn biomass.
The three public schools in Darby are heated by a large $800,000 furnace that burns a steady stream of tiny branches and wood chips arriving by conveyor. Rick Scheele, the maintenance supervisor for the schools and the mayor of Darby, estimates that heating the school with diesel this year would have cost $125,000 and that using biomass will cost $28,000.
''It's allowed a few extra teachers to stick around,'' Mr. Scheele said. ''It's been pretty tight around here.''
For the moment, environmentalists are watching the small-diameter movement warily.
''We support hazardous-fuels reduction,'' said Bob Ekey, Northern Rockies
regional director for the Wilderness Society. ''But we want to make sure
it's done well, and done right, so we don't create more demand than the land