By Tony Kryzanowski
“The fire probably took four good runs at us,” says Howie Ewashko, co-owner of Fort McMurray’s Northland Forest Products. “We saw 300-foot flames right at the edge of the firebreak around the sawmill and fought them from coming onto the property. We were in the middle of the fire and our log decks were at great risk on certain days.”
That’s how Ewashko describes his encounter with ‘The Beast’—a historic wildfire that consumed 590,000 hectares of forest and 2400 homes in Fort McMurray last spring, spurring the largest wildfire evacuation and resulting in the most costly disaster in Canadian history. The forest fire started on May 1 and was not declared under control until July 5.
Tinder dry conditions resulting from an unseasonably warm winter, and little moisture in the ground, are what turned the forest around Fort McMurray into a wildfire powder keg, and when it blew, Northland Forest Products, located about 16 kilometres north of the community, found itself at great peril.
At the fire’s worst, as Fort McMurray residents rushed to answer the mandatory evacuation order, the mill also became a place of refuge as evacuees from the city and surrounding area fled north and south down Hwy. 63 to escape the flames. On May 3, at the start of the evacuation, many families were separated, and at one point, there were 150 people in the mill yard, with people worried about their families, and wondering where to turn. They eventually found safe passage to reunite with family members and escape the Beast, when authorities deemed area highways safe enough to travel.
Ewashko was among eight sawmill employees who volunteered to stay at Northland Forest Products through the duration of the fire, to do whatever they could to protect the sawmill, log deck, and the 55 jobs that the business provides.
“The biggest concern upfront was food, water, and fuel and how we were going to deal with that, not knowing the length of time that we would not be receiving any services or goods,” says Ewashko.
It was a battle. The fire approached the sawmill from three different directions on four different occasions. Once, they narrowly escaped disaster as the fire roared past their western flank, and destroyed the nearby Blacksands Executive Lodge.
“We had seven water cannons and 120 sprinklers, positioning them depending on where the fire was coming from,” says Ewashko. “Every minute, we had about 70,000 gallons of water from the Athabasca River going into the air. It wasn’t every day that the fire was imminent, but every day for three weeks you could have had a spark light up our log pile.”
So in addition to moving the sprinkler system and water cannons into position, depending on wind and the direction of the fire, staff were on guard patrolling the log decks, watching for hot spots.
Luckily, through the efforts of company staff and area firefighters, the sawmill, the log deck, and jobs were spared. These jobs are invaluable to a community struggling with job loss due to the oil industry downturn. Only one employee has decided not to come back, and only two houses in town attached to Northland and its employees were burned.
“We had some great employees who volunteered to stay here to help us out, and we also had the provincial government with some wildland forest fire fighting groups to help us with sprinklers,” says Ewashko. “They helped us set up a mobile filling station and hydrant station so we could fill water trucks. Some days, we would fill 80 water trucks which moved through the Hwy. 63 corridor.”
Production at the sawmill was down for about two months, with those employees able to make it back early first taking up residence in an on-site camp that Northland’s logging contractors had placed in the mill yard.
Now, the independent forest company owned by Howie Ewashko and his brother, Craig, is sifting through the aftermath. Production was shut down entirely during the fire. The entire city of Fort McMurray remained empty until authorities deemed that it was safe for residents to return. But as the threat diminished, Northland Forest Products was able to slowly bring production back online. Residents didn’t begin returning to the fire ravaged city till mid-June.
And as life returns to some semblance of normal, Northland Forest Products is assessing the fire’s damage to their timber supply in the forest, and how that could influence the Fort McMurray sawmill’s plan to ramp up production from 60 million board feet to 80 million board feet this year, with the eventual goal being 100 million board feet annually. The plan was to achieve this uplift through some strategic investments, to make their sawmill more efficient, and also acquiring a larger wood supply.
In January 2016, Northland Forest Products purchased the idled Millar Western Forest Products sawmill in Boyle, Alberta. Boyle is located about 250 kilometres south of Fort McMurray. The purchase included a timber quota attached to the sawmill.
“We saw a decline in our fibre basket with the oil sands operators expanding,” says Ewashko. “So we were looking for fibre and the majority of the Millar Western Boyle fibre was somewhat close to us. So it was a great opportunity for us to firm up our fibre requirements.”
Ewashko says this purchase was aimed primarily at acquiring the timber supply. They have no short term plans to reopen the Boyle sawmill, but want to channel the wood allocated to the Boyle facility to Fort McMurray. The problem, however, is that the Fort McMurray fire destroyed some of that wood supply, and Northland is in the process of assessing the status of that wood basket in the fire’s aftermath.
“What we’ve concentrated on is finding the stands that we can salvage,” says Ewashko. “We’re into those stands already, doing some harvesting and continuing to investigate what impact the fire has had on our annual allowable cut.”
The company’s annual allowable cut pre-fire of 550,000 cubic metres is held jointly with pulp producer, Alberta Pacific Forest Industries (Al-Pac). Northland harvests the conifers and Al-Pac harvests the hardwood. Northland’s log diet consists of about 40 per cent jackpine and 60 per cent white spruce, with the average diameter being 8” to 10”.
Ewashko says that if anything positive has come out of the fire, it is that initial efforts to work more closely with Al-Pac on forest harvesting operations have now accelerated, to almost full integration.
The Fort McMurray sawmill is equipped with three processing lines. The small HewSaw log line processes logs from 3” to 8”, the medium line processes logs from 8” to 26”, and the large log line processes logs over 26” diameter.
They manufacture a wide range of dimension lumber from 2” x 3” to 2” x 12”, as well as 1” x 4”, 1” x 6” and 5/4” x 6” decking. Lumber lengths vary from 6’ to 16’. The company has investigated various value-added opportunities over the years, their decking line being one example of that. In the recent past, they have also produced notched stringers and pallet kits.
They aim for 100 per cent utilization, marketing both their sawdust and shavings. In 2008, they invested in a gasifier to convert their bark into syngas. The syngas is used as fuel to heat a series of oil tubes. The heated oil, in turn, provides heat for their buildings and dry kilns. While operating the gasifier offers no major financial benefit at today’s natural gas prices, “there is a huge aesthetic and environmental impact to not running a beehive burner,” says Ewashko.
“What we are really focusing on now is upgrading our scanning technology and we have just started up a new merchandizing bucking system,” he adds.
Last summer, Northland Forest Products worked with their in-house engineer to develop a system of scanning and moveable saws at the sawmill infeed to more efficiently buck up their tree length logs. The goal is to achieve higher throughput on each processing line. The concurrent investment into newer scanning technology will provide the sawmill with a better view of the characteristics of each log. MPM Engineering provided the scanning technology for the bucking system, with engineering assistance from Salmon Arm, B.C.-based, Iron Code Engineering.
The sawmill accepts both tree length and cut to length logs. About 80 per cent are tree length processed through the new merchandizing bucking system, and 20 per cent is cut to length.
“What we expect from this system is to double our throughput to over 400 pieces per hour versus 200 pieces per hour previously,” says Ewashko.
The sawmill’s most recent upgrade was to install a Comact GradExpert computerized lumber grading system in the planer mill.
“That investment really evened out our flow through the planer and there is no bottleneck for us in the planer mill at all,” says Ewashko.
Northland Forest Products continues to make strategic investments to boost outturn and value uplift. A new HewSaw R200 A1 breakdown unit will be installed in spring 2017 to replace an older model HewSaw. The new HewSaw will provide the sawmill with board edging capabilities on its small log line, more throughput speed, and improved log turning and scanning. The new HewSaw will be equipped with scanning and optimization technology from Prologic+ in Quebec.
The sawmill may bring on a second shift, but Ewashko says they still need to become more familiar with the capabilities of their new merchandizing bucking system and have a better idea of the fire’s impact on their wood supply before making that move.
On the Cover:
The theme for the upcoming Council of Forest Industries (COFI) convention in April is “Forestry for the Planet. Forest Products for the World” which helps underline the renewable nature of wood and its suitability for green-conscious building construction. But a big topic of discussion is going to be what Canada can do to strike a new softwood lumber deal with the U.S. Read all about the convention beginning on page 10. (Cover photo courtesy of Resolute Forest Products)
A new beetle battle in B.C.
In the wake of the mountain pine beetle, spruce beetles have become a big concern in the B.C. Interior, prompting a two-day spruce beetle summit held recently in Prince George, to keep all the parties in the loop about this latest beetle battle.
COFI Conference Preview
The upcoming Council of Forest Industries (COFI) convention in April will be looking at the challenges now facing the industry, including how to get a new lumber deal with the U.S.—but these challenges are being tackled by an industry that’s resilient, creative and successful, says COFI President and CEO Susan Yurkovich.
Back on track… after The Beast
The growth plan at Fort McMurray’s Northland Forest Products is back on track, after being temporarily interrupted by the massive wildfire—called The Beast—that hit the city this past spring.
Milling for the movies
The Brooks sawmill, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of Alberta, has developed a varied client list—including supplying wood products to the recent hit movie, The Revenant.
Alberta logging contractor Corey Stoneman finds that when it comes to choosing equipment for the stump-side processing he does for Spray Lakes Sawmills in the eastern slopes of the Rockies, bigger is definitely better.
New work standards for sawmill planers
New work standards for sawmill planers in B.C. are expected to make the work environment safer—and contribute to an increase in planer efficiency.
Cutting its own path
Simpson Lumber Co. has cut its own path to success in B.C.’s Robson Valley, focusing on Doug fir timbers, specialty and custom cuts—with the bonus being a very short commute for mill owner, Larry Simpson.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre and Alberta Innovates.
The Last Word
Getting the B.C. forest industry to a bright future is going to take some doing, with a falling timber cut, says Jim Stirling.