The mountain pine beetle infestation in B.CCONTINUING TO BATTLE THE BEETLE

The mountain pine beetle infestation in B.C. may be in the forest industry’s rear mirror, but it now has the spruce bark beetle to deal with, and loggers are well into the salvage and control measure mode.

Myron Smaha (left) and foreman Ryan Klaver are directing the logging crews for Fink’s Sawmill, a job that entails building logging road (below) in addition to doing the harvesting.

By Jim Stirling

The moist earth exposed by the excavator’s blade smells fresh as the dawn of time. But this type of creation is repeating itself too often. It represents the beginning of a new road to be cut through the bush for logging crews to access recently infected stands of spruce bark beetle wood. The beetles are part of an expanding infestation that has licencees, their log harvesting contractors and other forest users concerned in the B.C. Interior. And justifiably so.

Outbreaks of the beetle’s presence started showing up in greater numbers in 2014, with about 50,000 hectares infected around the Omineca region of north central British Columbia. Since then, the spruce beetle infestation has radiated out in all directions and by the end of 2017, it affected more than 375,000 hectares.

One of those areas where the beetle has made inroads are the spruce, balsam and hemlock forests north and west of Smithers. That’s home base for Fink’s Sawmill’s logging crews. For them and most other log harvesting contractors in the region, there’s been little or no respite from harvesting beetle wood. As the years of the mountain pine beetle epidemic gradually subsided, the warmer summer and winter temperatures have consistently continued, helping increase the spruce beetle populations. The growth figures of the infestation may represent a robust but not abnormal population surge. Or they may not.

The mountain pine beetle infestation in B.CThe regional forest industry has learned its lessons and is well into salvage and control measure mode.

“We expect to build about 10 kilometres of access road this summer,” said Myron Smaha, Fink’s Sawmill principal. “And in the winter season, we will build the block roads.” The prime machines assigned to the company’s roadbuilding efforts include a Cat 324 hoe, a venerable but reliable Cat D5H and a Komatsu 220 armed with a blade.

West Fraser Timber and Canfor Corp., Canada’s two largest forest companies, are both active in the region and salvaging spruce beetle infected wood. Smaha’s Fink’s Sawmill has a 160,000 cubic metre a year contract with West Fraser Timber’s Pacific Inland Resources division sawmill in Smithers.

“We cut small spruce beetle blocks for West Fraser,” said Smaha.

Some patches his crews have harvested have been down to the 500 to 600 cubic metre range, although most are larger. Canfor, on the other hand, has so far at least taken a different approach to its spruce beetle block design and opted for more clearcuts, noted Smaha.

The mountain pine beetle infestation in B.CChasing the beetles has become normal operating procedure for logging contractors in the B.C. Interior as populations continue expanding. But that is becoming increasingly close-coupled with another problem: a decline in the availability of qualified people to operate the harvesting machines necessary to salvage all those infested volumes. Smaha knows all about that, too. All you have to do is look on Facebook and see all the other professions looking for workers, said Smaha.

“We try to concentrate on the local Smithers-Telkwa area where people who have a vested interest in the community are more likely to stay in it.”

Little more than a year ago, the owner/operator of a feller buncher working for Fink’s Sawmill decided to retire. The company ended up buying a new buncher as a replacement: a Tigercat 855D to complement the company’s existing Tigercat 870. (Around the same time, a Tigercat 880D butt ’n top was added to the equipment fleet).

Smaha noted the 855’s engine configuration provides superior fuel efficiency, but the smaller engine and hydraulic pumps generate less horsepower, affecting the machine’s multi-functioning ability. “Tigercat does make a nice strong machine,” he added. “Our loading is subbed out and the shortage of operators is one of the reasons for that,” continued Smaha. “But it also takes the chore away from us and helps share the work with others.”

The company’s skidding workhorses are two John Deere 748s, one with about 8,000 hours on the clock and the other with 3,000 hours. There’s also a Tigercat 635 six-wheel skidder. In a reflection of the sometimes weird weather patterns, parts of Fink’s Sawmill’s operating areas experienced five to six feet of snow last winter. Smaha equipped the Tigercat 635 with a set of Olofsfors Eco-Wheel tracks. “They proved very helpful.”

The mountain pine beetle infestation in B.CAs the years of the mountain pine beetle epidemic gradually subsided in the B.C. Interior, the warmer summer and winter temperatures have consistently continued, helping increase spruce bark beetle populations.

Uncooperative weather can hinder log harvesting operations in many ways. For example, rapidly changing conditions meant not all the volume of wood decked at one location could be moved as planned last year, necessitating a trip back to retrieve the remainder in the spring.

The company’s machine operators, which includes some long term folks, are responsible for regular maintenance on the equipment they habitually operate. But there needs to be flexibility within a numerically small crew, and they can also operate equipment like bulldozers, hoes and low-beds as required. Fink’s Sawmill operates three of its own GPS-equipped logging trucks and hires up to seven others. They haul mainly short logs with on-highway load configurations and a five-hour trip is normal. The company’s logging crews set up mobile self-catering camps from which to operate, and chose to organize four 12-hour working days with eight hours on Fridays.

Once again the changing weather can throw a loop into the usual routines. When it’s hot, loggers can’t work after 1 p.m. to reduce forest fire risks, although loading can be permitted. And as Smaha noted, the Ministry of Forests has become more pro-active, putting logging contractors on advance notice when equipment and operators might be required if weather forecasts indicate thunder and lightning cells are expected in a specified area.

The mountain pine beetle infestation in B.CChasing the spruce bark beetle has become normal operating procedure for logging contractors in the B.C. Interior as populations continue expanding.

Fink’s Sawmill crews are scheduled to be kept busy during the next several months harvesting spruce beetle salvage wood at locations in behind Hazelton. Parts of the spruce, balsam, hemlock forests are challenging to log, containing slopes up around 30 per cent and punctuated by gullies and sections of broken ground. “We expect to be harvesting various sizes of patches,” said Smaha.

Positioning of trap trees is another continuing part of the spruce beetle control strategy. Downed mature spruce are a preferred beetle habitat. At the appropriate time, a load or two of the trap trees are trucked to Pacific Inland Resources’ Smithers mill, and usually scheduled for hot processing.

The next set of aerial and ground surveys from 2018 will reveal the latest snapshot and extent of the spruce beetle infestation. The figures will also help tell the forest industry what it’s up against in the near term. And they might help paint a more accurate picture for the mid-term timber supply prospects essential to sustaining the regional forest industry.

 

Logging and Sawmilling Journal
October 2018

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E&B Helicopters provides air transportation to coastal forest industry companies, being the go-to-guys for getting loggers to work in remote areas—and sometimes being the first responders in case of serious accidents.

Continuing to battle the beetle in B.C.
The mountain pine beetle infestation in B.C. may be in the forest industry’s rear mirror, but it now has the spruce bark beetle to deal with, and loggers are well into the salvage and control measure mode.

Nine-axle trucks get traction in B.C.
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The Edge
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