By Paul MacDonald
The clock is ticking on the timber that was burned in the forest fires in the B.C. Interior last summer.
The B.C. government estimates that about 1.2 million hectares of land containing merchantable timber was burned to varying degrees during last year’s fire season. To put it in perspective, that’s an area more than 100 times the size of the city of Vancouver.
Some 53 million cubic metres of timber burned in the B.C. Interior—an entire year’s timber harvest for the interior, equivalent to three-quarters of the B.C. Annual Allowable Cut.
Burned timber deteriorates in quality quickly, so licensees are focusing their harvesting operations to retrieve maximum sustainable value from burned areas. Hence the ticking clock.
One of the forest companies affected by the fires was B.C.-based Tolko Industries. Tolko runs nine mills in B.C., including three in the Cariboo, the region hit with the most fires. Three of its mills were shut down during the fires. At one point, the town of Williams Lake, with a population of 11,000, was completely evacuated.
Jerry Mooney, harvesting manager for the Cariboo region for Tolko, recalls the start of the fires in the summer of 2017..
“It really kicked off with a vengeance on July 7, when a number of lightning strikes went through the Cariboo region, and started a number of significant fires,” he says. That lightning storm alone created 144 fires.
“The big risk that first afternoon was the proximity of the fires to Williams Lake—we had three sizable fires surrounding the community.” Forest fires were burning on both sides of the Williams Lake Airport.
“There was significant fire threat that we faced that first evening, and some evacuations started occurring in the outlying areas.”
From then on, pretty much for the next two months, just about everyone’s efforts in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region were focused on fighting the forest fires, which were raging out of control.
“The Fire Centre in Williams Lake called on Tolko to start providing as many resources as we could to help them out,” says Mooney. “The Ministry is responsible for wildfire response, and they often rely on Tolko to provide ground support.”
That ground support could be in the form of building fire guards, using any equipment that is available. In addition to calling on forest companies like Tolko, the ministry also relies on logging contractors, and their extensive equipment, to help fight forest fires.
“At one point, Tolko had 70 people deployed running fire lines and supervising equipment,” says Mooney. “The majority of our logging contractors had bunchers, skidders, dozers and water tenders all deployed, and were helping to co-ordinate the firefighting effort.
“For about 50 days, we were essentially an extension of the BC Wildfire Service, throughout the Cariboo. It was like shifting gears for everyone—going from logging to fighting forest fires.”
Through a normal June to August period, logging contractors would be out in the bush, harvesting, and also, of course, paying attention to forest fire ratings, due to the warm, dry weather. Some contractors may be shut down for brief periods when ratings get high, and if there are any fires, their dozers might be called into action, to help out. “But in an average summer, there is still logging going on,” says Mooney.
The logging essentially stopped for the better part of two months last year, though.
“Our bush operations were essentially shut down for most of July and August.” Tolko alone had 10 active logging operations that were shut down or impacted by the fires.
While Williams Lake was evacuated, some Tolko employees opted to stay and help in the firefighting efforts. They were sleeping in cots at the Tolko office, and campers in the parking lot. “We continued to try to support the forest service however we could during the evacuation,” said Mooney.
“It really brought our group as a whole, company people, contractors, together. When you are in a crisis like that, it’s all hands on deck,” added Kevin Systma, Tolko forestry manager for the Cariboo region.
“Most of the people in the Cariboo/Chilcotin region are either directly or indirectly employed or affected by the forest industry,” Systma says. “We saw a lot of community spirit, the willingness of people to come back after the evacuation orders, and get to work. It was a real collective effort by the community.”
Such a catastrophic forest fire season takes its toll on everyone, and those involved with the forest industry were certainly affected.
Many logging contractors were shut down for the better part of two months, and Tolko and other sawmills in the region, such as West Fraser operations, were shut down. While contractors were compensated for the use of their equipment in fighting the forest fires, some of the equipment, such as processors and logging trucks, were not used, since the focus was on fighting fires, not processing or moving timber. Many people working in the bush—and at the sawmills—had not seen a paycheque for quite a while.
So where do you start to get back to normal?
Tolko took stock of where things were. It estimated that it had over a million cubic metres of cutting permits in fire impacted areas—essentially a million cubic metres of burned wood.
That represents huge investments in that land base, years of work, approvals, road infrastructure, First Nations consultation and accommodation, cutting permits approved and issued—essentially timberland that was ready to be harvested. And it’s now mostly burned wood.
“The fires ended up burning a lot of our work in progress in the bush, and you can’t replace those roadside bush inventories overnight,” said Systma. “The first step for Jerry and myself was to assess the damage, and figure out how we get people back to work.”
As part of that, Tolko worked to obtain timber from private land. “We have excellent relationships with First Nations communities, and we worked specifically with the Williams Lake Indian Band to move ahead and assist them with timber salvage/restoration on their lands. We are still working with the band now.”
As noted, the company lost active cutting permits in fire-affected areas, with the largest impact being in the Quesnel area, 120 kilometres north of Williams Lake.
Mooney says the company has a close working relationship with its logging contractors, and it was pro-actively planning for the recovery effort, and getting people back to work. “In the last 20 days or so of firefighting, there was this conscious thought about how to get back logging after this.”
Just as the contractors and Tolko employees had transitioned into firefighting mode, they then transitioned back into logging mode. “There were some logging areas that had sustained damage, but we had some harvesting activities that we could continue on with after the fire. We were quick to see what the first salvage/restoration harvesting opportunities were.”
The timeline for the practical use of the burned wood varies, depending on the species, and the fire damage, Systma says.
“We really see two harvest opportunities. For burnt Douglas fir, we likely have two to three years, depending on the fire severity and the condition of the stand at the time of the fire. That’s due to its thick bark and the quality of the wood that has been protected by the bark. We feel that over the next two to three years, we can continue to salvage in those stands.
“The second is that as you move west from the Fraser River, on the Chilcotin Plateau, that is very much a pine landscape—and there were very much stand-destroying fires there.
“A lot of the wood has char in it, and it’s not usable for the products Tolko produces or for chips for pulp and paper. There is some opportunity in the pine landscape, perhaps in areas with low severity ground fire. But we are probably looking at less than a year of salvage in a lot of the spruce/pine areas.”
Pine deteriorates quickly, notes Mooney. “Once it gets heat in the spring the year after a fire, it just opens up and starts cracking.
“We’ll see what happens this year, but with the really heavy black char white wood, we’re hoping we will get another year out of it—but that may, or may not, happen.
“A good example is that we were successful in generating veneer logs this past winter. But right now, through the summer, you have to be very selective in where you are able to harvest a veneer log because the day after you cut a log, it will be sitting in the sun and it checks a lot quicker.” What was a potential veneer stand is already most likely a sawlog stand, and the larger logs are going to deteriorate a lot quicker.
“A lot of the standing wood is falling down, too, with root damage and the ground becoming unstable,” says Systma. “We’re going to see an increase in the cost for our contractors to recover that fibre and work through those areas as these stands essentially fall apart.”
Through this past fall, they were gearing contractors up, to harvest fire damaged timber in and around Williams Lake, says Mooney. “The focus has been on burnt Douglas fir,” he added.
Day to day operations for logging contractors harvesting burnt timber definitely has challenges. Far more attention must be paid to equipment maintenance.
“The most notable thing is the soot and dust impact,” says Mooney. “There is a build-up of carbon soot and the risk of equipment fires.”
There is extra work on cleaning equipment, blowing out rads, changing filters and cleaning cab vents—and just plain old power-washing of equipment. “The contractors are putting in a concerted effort on a daily and weekly basis, and that results in additional costs.”
For now, Tolko employees and contractors are happy to be back at work, but it hasn’t been easy. “To get logging up to full scale operation was certainly challenging for everyone,” says Murray Wilson, Tolko’s manager of stewardship and tenures in B.C. “And it’s been a real challenge to get the log inventory at the mills up.” Wilson notes they were fortunate in that they had a longer, colder winter, which helped extend the logging season. “We were able to salvage wood and haul for longer than we normally would, with a later arrival of spring. That really helped our operations.”
An important point is that these days there is a very efficient logging supply chain, says Wilson, and not a lot of slack or over-capacity. “Everyone in B.C. knows there are no extra loggers or logging trucks. When you try to go from 60 per cent to 140 per cent, to make up for time and production lost to fires, there is simply not the capacity to do it. When you have a natural disaster, like the fires, catching up is tough.”
The sheer intensity of the fires, and large area affected, compounds the situation, says Wilson. “Many of us have been to involved with fires before, but it might have meant moving 10 or 20 per cent of your logging operations for a short period.
“But the scale of these fires were so vast, it really challenges the forest industry, communities and government together. We’ve never seen this amount of land burned before—and it was really focused on the Cariboo-Chilcotin area.”
One thing that was made crystal clear during the fires, though, is the way that communities, and those involved in government and the forest industry, pulled together during a crisis. “I think we saw an exceptional response from everyone involved including government, First Nations and our own Tolko and logging contractor teams,” says Wilson. “We had people staying behind, essentially living in their offices. And with our logging contractors, they were out there putting their equipment on the line.”
As much as possible, things in the industry have returned to normal—but it is a new normal, considering the scale of the fire impacts—and the recovery efforts still to be realized.
On the Cover:
Hannah Dehoog of Smithers, B.C., is catching a lot of attention in the logging community. It’s not just her engaging presence on social media, but her determination and skill as a young female heavy equipment operator working in a decidedly male dominated industry. Read all about Dehoog and the logging work she is doing beginning on page 8 of this issue. (Cover photo courtesy of Tigercat).
Safety evolving with silviculture sector
The Western Forestry Contractors’ Association set out recently to gain an insight into how the silviculture sector has evolved—and where health and safety programs might need to be changed, to reflect that evolution.
There is a place for young women in Canada’s forest industry, and B.C.’s Hannah Dehoog is proof of that. She loves being in the bush operating logging equipment, and has run everything from skidders to leveling feller bunchers, doing steep slope work.
Big B.C. mill investments
The San Group, which recently acquired a mill operation on Vancouver Island, has some ambitious spending plans for its B.C. sawmill and reman operations, including adding a small log mill operation, with HewSaw equipment.
Dealing with the aftermath of forest fires—at the sawmill
B.C. forest company Tolko Industries is successfully handling fire salvaged timber from last year’s massive forest fires, thanks to some changes at their mill operations.
Tackling the tough job of fire salvage
Last summer’s forest fires in B.C. created a lot of salvage work for forest companies including Tolko Industries. But just as Tolko’s employees and contractors were up to the task of fighting the fires, they’re also up to the tough job of salvaging the fire-affected timber.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre and Alberta Innovates.
The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski says the forest industry needs a better communications approach for advocating wood-based alternatives in the battle against plastic.