By Paul MacDonald
So how do you start dealing with processing timber that was burned in the largest wildfire season ever to hit British Columbia?
If you are one of Canada’s largest lumber producers, Tolko Industries, you do a lot of planning, and then you execute—but you also remain flexible. Not an easy task.
But then tackling these large forest fires last summer was extremely challenging.
Randy Chadney, Tolko general manager, said it was impressive how the town of Williams Lake, where Tolko has two sawmills, dealt with the evacuation. “It was really unbelievable how the community came together,” he says.
While Williams Lake was evacuated, the Quesnel team prepared meals on a daily basis and Chadney had a pass to bring down supplies for company personnel who stayed behind, to fight the forest fires. While in Williams Lake, they did daily asset protection tours at the company’s mill sites in the town.
“We helped with mitigation work,” he said. “Logs and lumber were moved at the mills, especially on the periphery where the wildlife interface was, just in case. So we had a buffer zone.”
High powered irrigation sprinklers were also set up at the mills, and water storage bladders were located around the log decks in the yard.
“It was pretty intense—especially after the city was evacuated,” Chadney says. “There were fires all around Williams Lake, and they got to within two miles of West Fraser’s sawmill one night.”
In the Quesnel and Williams Lake area, about 46 million cubic metres of timber, and another nine million cubic metres in the 100 Mile House area to the south, were impacted by the wildfires. Tolko has a percentage of the cut in each of those areas. In the long-term, 12 million cubic metres of Tolko’s future harvest has been affected, the company estimates.
It’s a huge understatement to say it’s been a very busy time for Tolko operations in the Cariboo/Chilcotin region since last summer.
At their Soda Creek sawmill in Williams Lake, the company has made significant investments in extra equipment to handle the fire-damaged wood. Normally, the Soda Creek sawmill produces SPF lumber, but over the next several years, it will have a strong focus on Douglas fir.
“We are consuming a lot of mostly burned Douglas fir,” explained Chadney. “The burned white wood just didn’t hold up as well as the fir in the fires, because its bark is not as thick as the fir.”
Tolko has adjusted equipment speeds at the mill to better handle the burned wood. Its debarkers are normally running at 450 feet a minute, but its newly installed VK dual ring debarker, which replaced a single ring Nicholson debarker, is running at 390 feet per minute. The dual ring debarker was installed to help the mill better handle the burned timber.
The char from the burned wood takes its toll on the equipment, so more maintenance, and cleaning is required. There are stringent WorkSafeBC workplace regulations that need to be maintained. But the company has a strong safety culture.
It also took some adjusting at the company’s Quest Wood sawmill operation, 120 kilometres up Highway 97 from Williams Lake, in Quesnel.
“The Quesnel operation has been a whitewood operation for a very long time—they have probably not run fir for 30 years,” explains Chadney. “Quest Wood has been very focused on processing beetle wood from the region.”
The operation had some help from their mill colleagues at the Williams Lake mill in making the switch. Williams Lake has run fir on and off, and has experience on how best to handle the species.
“Cutting fir is quite a bit different than cutting SPF, especially the beetle killed wood that we had been handling in Quesnel,” says Chadney. “That extends right down to moisture sorting and how best to kiln dry the wood, and setting up the planer equipment so it’s optimized to deal with fir. We had some operational challenges at the beginning, but we are now running close to optimum performance.”
Prior to doing its debarker equipment set-up, Tolko did trial runs last fall. “We worked with equipment manufactures on different tip angles on the debarkers on the fir, which is hard to run in the winter when it is frozen.
“We saw what works best—but it has an impact in the mill, and we have to run the fir at quite a lower speed.” To deal with that, they’ve added extra capacity and hours on the debarking end.
Tolko had a sizable amount of Standing Timber Inventory, mostly SPF, west of Quesnel, that was ready to be logged—and it was pretty much wiped out in the forest fires. “So we’re now focusing on the fir in the Williams Lake region, and shipping a lot of that into the Quesnel mill, as well.”
Tolko has also let its lumber customers know to expect some product changes. Customers who have been used to receiving SPF are now receiving more of a SPF/Douglas fir mix.
And it’s not all about the lumber. Chadney said they have been very pro-active with their wood chip customers, to make sure they are getting the quality chips they require. “They cannot have any charred chips in their wood chips as it would impact their pulp process,” he says. “So at both Soda Creek and our Quest Wood operation, we invested capital and installed burned wood rejection systems, after the debarkers.”
They now have operators at each mill, manning controls, ejecting any logs with visible char. “So we now have another employee, and conveyors and controls, on each sawmill line, to identify the badly burned logs, and they manually eject the logs, and get them out of the main flow of the mill.
“We’ve had our chip customers come through and see what we are doing, and they are extremely satisfied with the process we’ve put in place,” says Chadney. “We’ve had no issues with any our chips.”
The ejected, charred logs are stored, and are run through the mill separately, with the resulting chips sent to non-pulp customers. “That has an economic impact because the value of those chips is less than pulp chips.”
There is also a concern that as time progresses, the grade recovery from the burnt timber will diminish. “We are already starting to see logs harvested last winter drying out and splitting. This is the first logging season after the fire so we are a bit concerned what next spring will look like.”
Once the fire season was over last fall, Chadney noted it took a bit of time to get the Tolko sawmill operations ramped up. “We did not have much of a log supply in the millyards when the fires started.”
As part of the overall timber assessment process, Tolko’s woodlands staff toured mill management through some of the fire-damaged areas. Woodlands and mill management usually work closely together, but that is even more so now, as the company wants to get a realistic assessment of what is salvageable out in the forest, utilizing all the expertise it has available. “We had field trips with our manufacturing people, showing them the burned areas, to get their thoughts,” says Chadney.
The teams at both mills have done a phenomenal job of adapting very quickly, Chadney says.
Tolko’s Williams Lake operations had some experience in dealing with burned wood. There was a forest fire at a military training area west of Williams Lake in 2009, and the mills harvested the timber off those lands.
As if dealing with the huge wildfires was not enough on its own, Tolko’s Lakeview sawmill in Williams Lake was hit by a mill fire in November, and has been shut since then. It is now in the process of being rebuilt.
Tolko has worked hard to put many of their employees displaced by the Lakeview mill fire into the Soda Creek (Williams Lake) and Quest Wood operations.
“Soda Creek has gone from a two-shift operation to three-shifts, and the whole goal with that is to try to put Tolko employees who had been displaced from Lakeview into other company operations.” The company has been successful in adding 50 employees at Soda Creek and 15 people into Quest Wood, including trades people and staff.
“It was a really good collaboration with the United Steelworkers in the region, to get agreements in place to put employees temporarily into other company operations so they could continue to work,” says Chadney. “When Lakeview comes back online, we’ll move these people back into that operation.
“The support from the company and the Thorlakson family has been great,” he added. Tolko Industries is owned by the Thorlakson family, who founded the company in 1956.
Tolko is on a fast track with rebuilding the Lakeview mill. They are looking to start it up in the fourth quarter, essentially a year after the fire hit the operation. “We had to make some decisions fast,” says Chadney. “But we have a good mill design, and we are going to have a very competitive mill.”
Tolko was able to re-purpose some sawmill equipment from its Nicola Valley sawmill, near Merritt, B.C., which had shut down in 2016.
“We’re also working with USNR on a new edger line, Optimil on upgrading the canter line, and SpringerMicrotec on a new log infeed system,” explained Chadney. “It’s going to be a lot more efficient and have a different, much smaller footprint,” he added.
On the Cover:
Hannah Dehoog of Smithers, B.C., is catching a lot of attention in the logging community. It’s not just her engaging presence on social media, but her determination and skill as a young female heavy equipment operator working in a decidedly male dominated industry. Read all about Dehoog and the logging work she is doing beginning on page 8 of this issue. (Cover photo courtesy of Tigercat).
Safety evolving with silviculture sector
The Western Forestry Contractors’ Association set out recently to gain an insight into how the silviculture sector has evolved—and where health and safety programs might need to be changed, to reflect that evolution.
There is a place for young women in Canada’s forest industry, and B.C.’s Hannah Dehoog is proof of that. She loves being in the bush operating logging equipment, and has run everything from skidders to leveling feller bunchers, doing steep slope work.
Big B.C. mill investments
The San Group, which recently acquired a mill operation on Vancouver Island, has some ambitious spending plans for its B.C. sawmill and reman operations, including adding a small log mill operation, with HewSaw equipment.
Dealing with the aftermath of forest fires—at the sawmill
B.C. forest company Tolko Industries is successfully handling fire salvaged timber from last year’s massive forest fires, thanks to some changes at their mill operations.
Tackling the tough job of fire salvage
Last summer’s forest fires in B.C. created a lot of salvage work for forest companies including Tolko Industries. But just as Tolko’s employees and contractors were up to the task of fighting the fires, they’re also up to the tough job of salvaging the fire-affected timber.
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
Tony Kryzanowski says the forest industry needs a better communications approach for advocating wood-based alternatives in the battle against plastic.