Quality control is a high-priority task for Al-Pac loggers working in an Alberta aspen fire kill zone.
By Tony Kryzanowski
Last year’s massive and destructive Chisholm forest fire in north-central Alberta destroyed thousands of hectares of timber and seven homes. Only three years earlier, a massive forest fire destroyed the entire decked log inventory belonging to Tolko Forest Industries in the community of High Prairie, near Chisholm, also damaging the company’s nearby oriented strand board plant.
The size and ferocity of these two forest fires offers compelling evidence to further validate predictions—by such organizations as the Canadian Forest Service—that due to climate change, the prairie provinces can expect elevated forest fire activity in the foreseeable future. Logging contractors working in this area of the mixed boreal forest are being forced to become experts in salvage logging. The days of spending an entire year harvesting nothing but green timber may be history.
Al-Pac—which operates the world’s largest single-line pulpmill at a site 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton—is the largest forest company operating in northern Alberta and is one of the companies that has been affected. One of its contractors is Tchir Forest Products. Company owner Felix Tchir, who has been logging for over 30 years, says he can’t remember a year like 2001, when all of Al-Pac’s contractors spent at least part of their logging season salvaging timber from the aftermath of area forest fires, from blow down, and even from the remnants of a mini-tornado. “It was a year of disasters,” says Tchir.
His company operates 12 pieces of equipment, and has an annual allowable cut of between 180,000 and 200,000 cubic metres of deciduous wood. While unfortunate, the Chisholm fire had one benefit for several area pulp mills. Because it occurred outside of the province’s Crown forest or “green” area, it represents an additional fibre resource for many—as long as the wood can be salvaged. That is the problem, especially for Al-Pac. Kodak and Fuji are two of its largest customers.
They demand high quality pulp because they use it to manufacture photographic paper. Blackened aspen does not exactly lend itself to quality pulp production, so Al-Pac devised a new game plan to salvage undamaged aspen from the Chisholm fire area. This inevitably has put a lot of quality control pressure on contractors like Tchir Forest Products. A visit to Tchir’s salvage logging site near Chisholm reveals a true logging oddity. Most of the area being harvested consists of partially burnt aspen tree trunks standing about three metres high.
And no, the company’s feller buncher operators don’t need to visit the eye doctor. It’s all part of a clever plan to salvage as much clear aspen from the area as possible, as well as potentially help the environment. The reason Tchir Forest Products is harvesting trees so high off the ground is because they are required to cut above the burn. “Al-Pac gave us a guideline of two metres,” says Tchir Forest Products production foreman Cyril Ulliac. “If we had followed that standard, we would have had to leave half the trees. So, we’ve been cutting three to four metres above the ground.” Al-Pac set the harvesting guideline at two metres and above, meaning that if contractors could find trees that only had fire damage at two metres and below, those trees could be cut above the two-metre level. However, it is up to contractors to conduct a visual inspection of the trees to see if there are any burn marks.
Tchir says that if they used the two-metre standard, they would be sorting a lot more trees, because they could tell that there was still significant fire damage on a number of trees in the two- to three-metre range. Yet, if they adjusted the standard to three to four metres, they could harvest more trees and save a lot of time sorting later, as more trees exhibited less fire damage above the three metre level. This method is also part of an experiment pertaining to regeneration and maintaining bio-diversity. “Al-Pac has found that there might be an advantage to the environment—to micro-organisms and maintaining animal habitat—if burned tree trunks are left standing,” says Ulliac. “It’s part of an experiment.”
Typically, he says they would have to double-cut the trees—above the burn to salvage the acceptable fibre and then at the butt. Although Tchir’s current practice of leaving three-metre trunks has meant that designating skid trails requires more care and attention, “in fact, it has increased our productivity a bit because we are not having to double-cut the stump.” That is one of the few production advantages the company has realized by working in this environment.
The need to maintain a high standard of quality control starting at the stump has impacted significantly on the company’s harvesting volume. To Al-Pac’s credit, it has adjusted the compensation rate accordingly. “We decided very early on that our feller buncher operators had to take care of most of the quality control,” says Ulliac. Operators must visually evaluate each tree before it is harvested. “It’s difficult because in some cases the fire has not only burned the butt, but has risen quickly to burn the branches. In this case, the fire follows the branch back to the tree stem, leaving a burn knot,” says Ulliac. “That’s not acceptable.”
The company’s second line of quality control defence is the skidder operator, who again is expected to sort burned stems from quality stems. This is where Tchir says having a Tigercat 630 skidder with a hydrostatic drive has really paid off. The operator doesn’t have to concentrate on changing gears, as with other skidder brands. Forward and reverse are controlled by two floor pedals. Also, the skidder comes to a stop when the operator takes his foot off the accelerator. Therefore, he can pay more attention to the logs he is skidding, especially in this unique environment.
“We’ve also noticed that there is considerably less wear and tear on the skidder because there are fewer jerking motions with the hydrostatic drive,” says Tchir. “That gives us a lot more uptime. Also, the skidder is more operator-friendly, especially for newer operators. They will do a lot less damage to that machine when you are training them as compared to other brands.” He adds that the skidder’s sturdy steel construction provides him with a good return on his investment and the purchase price was comparable to competing skidders.
His oldest Tigercat skidder now has 4,200 hours on it, without having experienced any significant downtime. Tchir Forest Product’s delimber operators are its last line of quality control defence. They routinely have to exit their machines and visually inspect their decks to ensure nothing was missed during the delimbing process. Often, an unacceptable tree is impossible to detect short of close inspection, especially when the operator is attempting to maintain productivity by multi-stemming. Finally, wood decked at roadside is inspected before transportation to Al-Pac’s yard, so that problem logs can be sorted out immediately. It’s time consuming and tedious work. However, Tchir Forest Products is learning a new harvesting method that may prove invaluable in future if the current forest fire trend continues.
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