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April 1997 - Past Issue

Northlands Bounces Back

A devastating fire in December put family-owned Northlands Forest Products back on its heels. But not for long.

By Tony Kryzanowski
Copyright 1997. Contact publisher for permission to use.

During the day on Monday, December 3, 1996, the Northland Forest Products yard in Fort MacMurray, Alberta bustled with activity. The owners exuded enthusiasm as they talked about their recent mill upgrade and future plans for expansion.

Tuesday, December 4, was a different story. At 1:00 am, fire destroyed the family-owned sawmill, started by Roy and Bev Ewashko 25 years ago. For the family, including sons Craig and Howie, now involved as co-owners of the mill, the fire was a devastating turnabout - but not one, the family quickly resolved, that couldn't be overcome.

April "Obviously, there were some pretty long faces," says Craig Ewashko, "but we decided the same day that we would be rebuilding. Basically, this was the only thing we've ever done and we feel that we do it well. We've had success in the past, so what were we going to do?"

Cause of the fire remains under investigation. The likely cause, based on evidence gathered by several experts, is expected soon. In the meantime, the Ewashko's have set a course on an aggressive $12 million equipment and reconstruction program. They expect to start producing dimensional lumber by September. That is just phase one; phase two, slated for next spring, will see a new small log line, equipped with curved sawing technology.

Launching phase one has represented a mammoth task compressed into just a few short weeks since the December fire. Little of the old equipment could be salvaged, which meant starting from scratch. "The only thing that we could recover was the chipping area, which included the chipper, screen, a few conveyors and our log picker," says Ewashko.

The Ewashkos toured the recently commissioned Sundance Forest Products sawmill in Sundre, Alberta. Sundance recently spent $21 million equipping the sawmill with cutting-edge scanning technology, as well as brand-new Optimil and Newnes breakdown equipment. (See LSJ, July/Aug. 1996 issue.)

"As far as production, we decided to aim for the same goal that we had finally achieved before the fire," says Ewashko. "That was 220,000 cubic metres annually, on a single-shift basis. Our number one priority was to utilize our wood to the highest benefit, create an efficient mill, and create employment for our people here on an every-day-of-the-year basis."

The new Northland Forest Products sawmill will employ about 30 workers, on an eight-hour, five-day-a-week basis. They will produce various formats of dimensional lumber, using 80 per cent white spruce, 17 per cent jackpine and two to three per cent balsam fir. About 30 per cent of production goes to the United States, 65 per cent to Canadian markets, and five per cent to Japan.

April Howie Ewashko says he expects that percentage to stay about the same with the new sawmill initially, although their new production equipment will allow them more flexibility. A contributing factor to fleshing out potential new markets is the eventual impact of the softwood lumber export quota.

"There will be some constraints down the road," Howie says. "Now, whether this quota system will be around when we are really producing, I'm not so sure. I don't think it has the stability that everybody thought it would have at this point. I think there are a lot of problems with it on the Canadian side and on the American side."

After the fire, Northland cut back their log haul by 50 per cent, anticipating their needs once the new sawmill became operational.

The Ewashko's phase one reconstruction plan calls for a drive-on log deck, using a Cat 980 loader to transport stems, and a Prentice log picker to feed two debarking lines. They will use a new tree-length, 22'' Nicholson debarker and a fully-rebuilt 35'' Nicholson debarker.

The debarked logs will then proceed through tree-length scanning and optimized bucking, although Northlands has not yet settled on a scanning technology supplier. After bucking, the logs will proceed down an Optimil double-length infeed.

"We're going with a New West Industries log ladder, and Nanoose is doing the scanning with X/Y scanning ability," says Craig Ewashko. "They are working with Optimil on that project." Northland has opted for an Optimil four-sided canter and a circular quad breakdown. Their largest cant will be 12'' X 20''. Side boards will drop into an Optimil Catech board edger.

"It's the first one they have delivered in North America," says Craig. The cant will then pass through a cant turner, onto a queuing deck, and into an Optimil horizontal, double-arbor edger. All transfer decks, log decks, and cut-off systems not supplied by equipment suppliers are provided by GME Consulting. They are also the general project engineer.

From the board edger outfeed and double-arbor gang, the wood is processed on a Newnes trimmer optimizer, and packaged for the kiln using a Newnes sorter and stacker. Craig Ewashko gives three reasons why they chose the Optimil and Newnes equipment combination.

"Number one is history of performance, and second was delivery," says Ewashko. "Thirdly, when you are in a position like we are, a conservative decision is probably the wisest." Northland Forest Products had previously operated a Hewsaw R200 curved sawing unit. Replacement of that technology is likely to occur now in phase two.

"Our trees are good, and that's one of the reasons we didn't go with a curved sawing line on our first line," says Howie Ewashko. Craig adds that Hewsaw "is definitely one of the candidates" when they assemble the small log line. That line will process primarily jack pine and smaller white spruce.

Also down the road, Northland expects to continue on its aborted planer mill modernization project. The kiln and planer mill were not damaged by the fire. Craig Ewashko says they were half-way through their planer modernizing plans when the fire occurred, and he expects that it will be a high priority once phase one is completed.

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Last modified 06/08/97

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