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Building From The Ashes

The first step the company took after the fire was to assemble an internal team who put together a concept for the new plant. From there, both design and construction were fast-tracked.


By Ward Johnson
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Last June 28, about noon, a small whiff of smoke rose up from Tolko's Nicola Valley Division sawmill at Merritt, BC. Rushing to check out the problem, the Saturday maintenance crew discovered that some welding slag had started a small fire. They quickly got out fire equipment and started fighting the blaze but it soon became apparent they couldn't control it. Everyone left the mill and the call went out for outside help. The Merritt Fire Department rushed to the scene, followed by water bombers, but five hours later the plant lay in ashes. All that remained was the log infeed end, and part of the back half of the mill. Fortunately, the log yard and the lumber inventory were also left intact. In all, 145 hourly people were out of a job and the company was out 100 million board feet of annual production.

Barely two years earlier, in 1995, the Merritt sawmill had undergone a significant rebuild. Incorporated into the design were two breakdown lines, a large log side and a small log side, that produced 1X3 to 2X 12 dimension in 8' to 20' lengths. Mill equipment included single-length infeed, four-sided canter, a 10" vertical arbor straightsawing gang, a Letson & Burpe 7'bandmill, a a 12" Schurman double gang, and an optimized Newnes board edger. With this combination, not only was the plant fully flexible for the US market, it could also produce J-grade material for the Japanese market. In fact, about 14 per cent of the plant's production went to export. With much of this equipment destroyed, it was time to start again.

The first step in what would turn out to be a $32-million project was to assemble an internal company team, including mill supervisors and several other people from within the company, to conceptualize the new plant. Should it be a one-line or a two-line configuration? What kind of primary breakdown equipment should be used and what computer automation should be included? These questions had to be addressed before the new mill rebuild could get underway.

With a mandate to get the new mill up and running as soon as possible, the committee decided to expedite the design process by bringing the consulting engineering firms onsite. They contracted Carroll-Hatch (International) Ltd. from Vancouver, and Woodpro Engineering Ltd. from Prince George, who were instructed to bring their own computers and Computer Assisted Design (CAD) programs so they could operate onsite. Woodpro was responsible for the preliminary work, while Carroll-Hatch looked after the detailed design.

A step that proved especially significant in saving time was taken by mill manager Mike Harkies, who a few days after the fire contacted equipment suppliers and asked them to reserve manufacturing time. Rising to the situation, the suppliers promised to do their best and Harkies says they certainly came through. Many employed extra people and worked overtime and weekends to meet Tolko's scheduling requirements. The equipment was all delivered between October 15 and December 18 - right on time, as promised.

Among the first actions taken by the committee was a log supply analysis. This was a vital step because it would help determine what processing and breakdown equipment would do the best job, and whether to build a one-line plant for processing strictly small logs, or a two-line-mill with a large log side and a small log side. The analysis indicated the latter option was the best choice, which translated into a two-line design for the new mill.

With the log supply analysis underway, it was time to see what was out there in terms of technology and processing configurations. The company chartered a plane and several committee members went looking at new technology. The team visited the Riverside mill in Williams Lake, BC, a Weyerhaeuser plant in Washington, the Slocan plant in Radium, BC, Weldwood in 100 Mile House, BC, and Flavelle Cedar, in Port Moody, BC. These plants all exhibit the latest in technology and processing efficiency.

Harkies says the committee decided to hire two people as project coordinators, which proved to be an excellent decision. Ron Ecker of RMD Ventures in Kelowna looked after the construction, while Barry Tunzellman of Salmon Arm fulfilled the role of electrical co-ordinator. Harkies says these two people were paramount in smoothing out difficulties and completing the project on time.

At the construction site, the demolition process was getting started. Dewar Pacific of Vancouver moved on to the grounds to begin dismantling and removing the old structure, which took about a month.

Soil analysis work proved it would be necessary to put the new plant on steel pilings, so Ruskin Construction of Prince George was hired to drive a total of 145 40' steel piles as the base for the new plant.

Pile driving got underway near the beginning of September and by the middle of the month Central Mill Construction of Kamloops moved on to the site to begin the mechanical and civil work. Harbour View Electric of Vancouver also arrived about the same time to provide power sources and distribution. The first steel went up near the end of October, with the crew working 12 days on and two days off, 10 hours a day.

While construction was in progress, the Tolko mill supervisors were busy replacing tools, safety equipment, supplies and all the documentation that goes into running a sawmill. Harkies says it doesn't become clear just how much material is required to run a mill until it all has to be replaced.

During their layoff period, between eight and 20 members of the crew were kept busy working in the woods on forestry projects. Harkies explains the company obtained $550,000 from Forest Renewal BC, and this money was invested in improving timber stands and recreation sites.

To save time, Tolko decided to go with a pre-engineered building for the super structure. It was supplied by Steelway from Ontario, and erected by the Gisbourne Group from Vancouver. Harkies says the building didn't allow for a great deal of creativity in design, but it saved considerable time. The crew started erecting the building on November 17 and by Christmas, the mill was enclosed.

The new Merritt mill includes a Valon Kone 22" tandem-ring, Kodiak-style debarker in front of a reworked log infeed system. The infeed is a Denis Comact double-length infeed into a Multi Meg three-dimensional scanning system for machine controls.

The first breakdown centre is an Optimil two-sided canter twin sharp chain system that feeds two McGehee curved sawing gangs - on an 8" bottom arbor. Alongside is a 12" double arbor McGehee gang that services the large log side. Both gangs have Newnes optimizers and machine controls, and Harkies says this mill is a beta site for these optimizers.

"Newnes has significantly upgraded the software to make it more user friendly and more flexible," he says. "Working in conjunction with the Rod Nelson software, these gangs can do a better, faster job of curved sawing," says Harkies.

In the final stages of conversion, board edging is done with a new high-speed USNR system from Woodland, Washington, while the trimmer optiniizer, which was salvaged from the old plant, has been relocated and fitted with new sorter controls, since the old controls were destroyed in the fire. There is also a new Newnes unscrambler in front of the trimmer.

The headrig is a 7'Letson & Burpe single-cut bandmill supplied by USNR. It has a new log loader/log turner and carriage, designed by SKS Engineering and produced by Columbia Machine in Delta, BC. Supplier for the carriage is Gillespie Sales, also of Delta.

The new mill has a pneumatic blower system for chips and sawdust, supplied by Allied Blower of Vancouver, who also supplied the dust removal equipment. Sawdust screens were supplied by BM&M, while Edem supplied the vibratory conveyors. Variable frequency drives throughout the whole mill are supplied by Arrow Speed Controls of Vancouver, while New West Industries, of Winfield, BC, supplied all the log ladders.

First to start was the canter line, which was fired up on February 2, followed by the headrig line on February 26. The canter line can handle logs up to 18", while the headrig will handle logs to 54".

Harkies says the plant achieved 85 to 90 per cent of the pre-fire production level within the first seven weeks, and he expects the plant will produce close to 100 million board feet by year's end. He says the challenges are curved sawing and three-dimensional scanning on the canter line. "Getting up to the 80 per-cent level is easy," says Harkies, "but you have to work at that last 10 or 15 per cent. We expect it could take up to a year to get the plant up to speed, but at the same time, we are certain it will do what we expect. We just have to work through the bugs."

Harkies says he is very grateful for the way everyone responded during the crisis. "I'd like to express our gratitude to the employees, the suppliers and all the people who worked on this project. It took 120,000 hours of construction time to build this new plant and we did it in record time. We were always setting impossible goals, but we met them every time. Special circumstances seem to bring out the best in people."

new equipment

New equipment at the mill includes a 7' Letson & Burpe single-cut bandmill with a new log loader/log turner and carriage designed by SKS Engineering and produced by Columbia Machine.


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