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July August 2005  - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal

 

HURRICANE HARVERSTING

Dealing with the AFTERMATH

The tail end of the aftermath of Hurricane Juan may be working its way through the logging and sawmilling being done by Nova Scotia’s Elmsdale Lumber, but it is still bringing its fair share of extra work and diligence for both contractors and the sawmill.

By Stephen Bornais

Stephen Thompson looks across a freshly harvested woodlot about 40 kilometres north of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It’s a fine job, but just one that Thompson wasn’t planning on doing for a few years yet. It wasn’t his choice, though. Mother Nature made the decision for him.

Thompson is woodlands manager for Elmsdale Lumber, responsible for looking after the 12,000 hectares the company owns in central and northern Nova Scotia.

In 2003, a hurricane knocked down about 240 hectares of that total, small compared to the damage others suffered, but still significant. “Most of our holdings were not in the path of the hurricane and initially we thought we didn’t get hit bad at all,” Thompson says. “We were fortunate.”

Stephen Thompson, woodlands manager for Elmsdale Lumber, in a harvested site, part
of the salvage effort from the destruction caused by Hurricane Juan. “There were a
lot of challenges to the clean-up,” says Thompson.

Most of Elmsdale’s losses were in blocks of 30 to 40 hectares. Smaller blocks are just going to be left as they are, Thompson says. “We’ve identified the little tiny pockets as something we’re going to have to live with,” he says.

Hurricane Juan struck Nova Scotia head-on at 10 pm on September 28, 2003. By the time it had left the province five hours later, its 150-kilometre an hours winds had left a swath of destruction 50 kilometres wide and 100 kilometres long. In that stretch, thousands of hectares of woodlands were flattened, leading to a massive salvage effort to get the downed timber out of the woods.

Elmsdale Lumber has been here before. In 1954, Hurricane Edna knocked down woodlands across a wider area of the province, including 1,600 hectares the company had in the southern part of Nova Scotia. Thompson’s father, Downey Thompson, actually helped salvage some of that wood, work that continued for three years. “It was a mess,” the elder Thompson says.

Nearly 50 years later, Thompson decided that the Juan clean-up would be an all-mechanized job. “We didn’t feel it was safe to put men in there,” he says.

Crews followed the wind pattern, picking up the trees in the direction they were toppled. Many fell in an overlapping pattern that proved to be slow going. “There were a lot of challenges to it,” he says.


The biggest challenge again turned out to be weather-related. Five months after Juan, Nova Scotia was hit by White Juan, a winter storm that dumped more than 120 centimetres of snow across much of the same area the hurricane raged over.

“Once we got White Juan, we had to stop,” he says. “We were missing too much.” This past winter had far less snow, allowing crews to continue working through the season.

Thompson says contractors adjusted quickly to the Juan work. They learned fast that they had to take their time and attack with patience. “Everyone who was experienced went in and caught right on to it. They did an excellent job,” he says.


Nearly two years after Juan, Thompson estimates the provincial cleanup is about 80 per cent completed. “Down the road, we’re going to find pockets that were missed, or you couldn’t get roads to, and that’s wood that’s going to be downgraded,” he says.

Elmsdale used four contractors to clean up its Juan sites. Beaver Dam Enterprises, which is owned by the Thompson family, used a Ponsse Ergo harvester equipped with a Ponsse H73 head. Jet Logging Ltd used a 1270 Timberjack harvester. Both companies ran Fabtek 344B forwarders.

S & D MacPhee Forestry Ltd from nearby Rawdon used a 1270 Timberjack harvester and a tracked Timberjack 608 feller buncher to clean up a number of Juan sites.

For the really tough jobs, Elmsdale brought in contractor Peter Van Den Heuvel from Antigonish, about 200 kilometres north of Halifax. He ran a tracked Prentice 630 feller buncher along with a Hyundai carrier with a Target head. Van Den Heuvel followed those machines up with a Timberjack 1010 forwarder.

Experience showed that rubberwheeled harvesters didn’t have the power to deal with really tangled messes, Thompson says. “Those machines aren’t meant to cut one off and drag it out of the brush. So we had some contractors with tracked machines and we put those in some of the tougher spots,” he says.

Thompson thinks Juan taught valuable lessons, ones that contractors will use to their advantage in the years to come. “There’s always wind-damaged timber in the woods. For those contractors who cut the hurricane wood, this will speed them up in that work,” he says. “All the contractors learned a lot and it will certainly help them in the future.”

Elmsdale Lumber’s head saw filer Jason Molnar with a bucket filled with metal spikes and screws (above, left) that the mill encountered while cutting wood recovered from a wooded residential area, part of the Juan clean-up effort.

 

But when compared to cutting standing timber, the Juan clean-up was slow work. Thompson says landowners were forced to pay more to have the wood cleaned up, up to 20 to 40 per cent over pre-Juan rates, depending on the condition of the sites. “Contractors, at the end of the day, have to have so much wood or so much dollars, and if their production goes down because of the conditions, we have to offset it,” Thompson says.

Landowners and mills are unable to pass that cost on to their customers, Thompson says, since they are competing against producers outside the Juan damage zone. “This industry is a challenge anyway. There have been these kinds of things before. They’ll survive,” he says. “Mills are a pretty hardy group—and this certainly was a kick in the ass to them—but they’ll have to be creative.”

One way Elmsdale Lumber can adjust to the higher costs is to cut more from its own land. That’s a short-term solution that Thompson would rather avoid using too much. “Your own land is money in the bank. When you dip into it, you don’t notice it as bad, but is it a savings?” he says.

Juan proved costly in other ways, as well. Some of the first sites to be cleaned up were adjacent to residential areas. While the wood may have been easy to get at, it soon proved to be no bargain for sawmills.

Elmsdale Lumber’s head saw filer Jason Molnar has a five-gallon bucket in his shop that’s filled with metal spikes and screws, the remains of children’s camps and hunter stands. Unfortunately, the mill’s saws found them first.

Molnar says while the mill normally goes through 1,000 carbide saw tips a month, cutting the Juan wood pushed that to over 3,000 a month.

Crews even encountered a horse shoe that was embedded in one of the logs. “Years ago, when a horse threw a shoe, they would place it around a small tree. That tree would grow and engulf the shoe. And, however many decades later, we found it,” he says. “This destroyed a $3,000 saw.”

Every strike forced the mill to halt cutting, Molnar says. Sometimes, the mill would stop four or five times a day because of the metal in the logs. “You get a truckload of wood that all came from a subdivision, we’re going to have a bad day,” he says.

The rush to clean up was understandable given the prevailing wisdom that crews had about a year to harvest the timber before rot and insects destroyed its commercial value. But Thompson says he has been pleasantly surprised by the quality of timber coming in from the salvage sites. “It’s still pretty good.At the mill we’ve had no rejections of the wood. Overall, we think the contractors are doing a good job of identifying damage,” Thompson says.

The biggest fear was that the mill— which produces about 25 million board feet a year of what Thompson calls “premium” quality lumber—would be swamped by split wood. Thompson says contractors in the field were able to cut out damaged bolts for pulp wood.

That quality may be coming to an end, however. Out in Elmsdale’s yard, a stack of spruce logs harvested from a Juan site is showing signs of drying out, the bark starting to separate from the log, providing a ready home for boring insects. “The supervisors have already said that we’re going to have to watch for wood that’s already started to rot,” he says.

The shock of Juan convinced the provincial government and industry to pay for a study that examined the part current thinning practices might have played in the Juan amage. While results have not yet been published, Thompson says many thinned stands and shelter woods were hit hard. He believes that work was a factor in their toppling. “We hope to learn for the future which commercial thinnings are the right height, the right density,” he says. Thompson thinks the study will show that thinning is best used on reforested areas, rather than naturally regenerated sites.

Juan has been an huge adventure for contractors, landowners and the mills, but not one Thompson is eager to repeat.

“Our big fear at the mill is that there’s been a huge cut of wood that wasn’t going to be targeted in this past two-year period, so obviously, we’re going to have to go farther for our wood,” he says.

“That’s going to create some challenges both logistically and financially if we have to truck it further.”

This has forced Elmsdale, and other landowners, to adjust their cutting plans, speeding up harvesting actions in some areas and delaying it in others in order to avoid flooding the market with raw logs.

 

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