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Successful Fire Salvage

Successfully harvesting and processing burned wood has given a Manitoba forest company, and its contractor, the confidence to do more of this type of work.

By John Dietz

We can do this again"-that's the attitude in northeast Manitoba, now that 60,000 cubic metres of fibre from a forest fire has been successfully harvested and processed through a local paper mill.

Pine Falls Paper Company officials and P & A Contracting of Pine Falls, Manitoba each had positive experiences from harvesting the burn area. The pulp mill had tried it before and run into trouble. For the contractor, any initial worries eventually proved unfounded. "We tried again because of the proximity of the fire," says Bob Durocher, woodlands contract operations superintendent. "We had to learn how to use the timber and now that we have learned how, we'll do it again ."

The fire started in May 1999 and lasted for 10 days. It burned through about 29,000 hectares of black spruce, pine and balsam in a 39 kilometre long swath over swamp and high ground. Some good timber in the burn area was only 30 miles north of Pine Falls and easily accessible beside Highway 304. A round trip could be done in three hours.

Access was aided by a network of existing roads from a 1960s harvest in the area. Most of the new timber was still a little young for harvest, but about 25 per cent was balsam fir in prime condition, or just past prime.

"We went in for the residual stands that were left from the first cut-overs. They were too small to harvest in the 1960s," says Durocher. Only one harvesting "time window" was available-during the past winter. A burned-over forest dries and deteriorates quickly.

Skidding was a bit slower with the burned wood as compared with regular wood, P& A Contracting found. Instead of going over a pile of wood, the skidder would come along side the pile. Skidder operators were also careful about how they pushed the stems up to minimize breakage.

Normal wood coming into the mill weighs about 4,200 lbs/cord. By freeze-up though, the weight of the burned over wood was down to 3,400 lbs/cord and less. "All the wood we harvested this winter had to be in the yard by spring and used up by June," Durocher says.

It was segregated and treated separately. After chipping, Pine Falls was able to handle it as a special run through their sulfide mill. It was possible to compensate for the dryness, somewhat, by varying the cooking time.

The processed fibre was blended as a small percentage of total product. Pine Falls makes newsprint, using a blend of 20 per cent recycled material and 80 per cent virgin fibre.

"We'll be able to use burnt wood a lot more easily once we switch over to thermal mechanical pulping next year," Durocher says. The new TMP line is scheduled to begin operation in summer, 2001.

"Utilizing the burns will solve a lot of our problems with allowable cuts," he adds. Manitoba woodlands often have major fires. When the province calculates allowable cuts for a license area, it reduces the allowed amount by 12 per cent to compensate for natural losses including fires.

"We're hoping to gain some of that 12 per cent back by demonstrating we can harvest in a burn. That would bump up our allowable cut," Durocher says. The company is currently reviewing with provincial officials the calculation method for allowable cuts.

"We were a little leery when we started this," says contractor Alain Chevrefils. "We wondered how we'd make out, with all the dirt and the black, but it came along not too bad ."

Chevrefils and his brother-in-law, Paul Bourgeois, are partners in P&A Contracting. After more than 20 years in logging, this was their first harvest in a burn area.

"We weren't feeling too good about it after they told us last summer that we'd be cutting this, but I would do it again now," Chevrefils says. The burned area met his most critical factor: easy access to large stands of good wood.

Contractor Alain Chevrefils (above) says they were initially apprehensive about harvesting burned wood for Pine Falls Paper, but "it came along not too bad". He advised that anyone considering a fire salvage operation should be prepared for some breakage and dust problems. Cutting through the charred wood created a lot of dust at the buncher.

The charred bark, black dust and brittle stems presented some new issues. Chevrefils cautions that anyone considering a fire salvage operation should be prepared for some breakage and dust problems.

Black clouds of carbon dust made it necessary to clean radiators and air filters about twice as often. Operators on machines without enclosed cabs wore dust masks. Work clothes, for anyone on the ground, or working in the open air, were black within an hour or two.

"My buncher operator has severe bronchitis," Chevrefils says. "He was OK inside the cab, but I don't think he would have been able to take it on the skidder. If somebody has to push down a lot of that burned bush with a dozer, it's ugly ."

Last November, P & A harvested spruce and pine on high ground near the highway and at the edge of the burn. The 15member crew entered the heart of the burn area in early December, after the black spruce swamps had frozen. It turned into the warmest, shortest winter in memory for Manitoba loggers. By early March, roads were getting soft and melting had begun. Their cutting season ended March 23rd.

One warning was given- to watch for heavy charcoal on the butt. Operators of the buncher, delimber and slasher were to discard anything that had a lot of charcoal, as it will affect the paper. In practice, only a small percentage of the wood had to be discarded for this reason and it never became an issue.

Initially, the work was rougher than normal. "It was fairly rough on the buncher because the fire burned a lot of the topsoil," Chevrefils said. "The trunks and rocks were sticking up more. After we had a foot of snow, it was much easier on the equipment ."

P& A's Timberjack 608 feller buncher was working much faster in the burn, especially at night, Chevrefils says. "The trees are just like telephone poles. Our buncher's winter production was up about 25 per cent ." Fire had removed most of the undergrowth. Most of the tree branches that would have been holding snow and obscuring visibility were reduced to blackened stubs.

"We kept all our good blocks of burn wood for nighttime production because the visibility is so good. It's clear sailing ." In the daytime, the buncher operator would trim all around the bluffs of burnt wood and clean out the fringes.

Cutting through the charred trunks generated a black dust. A small amount of dirt was coming through the buncher's radiator. The radiator and air filters were getting dirty quickly. "That doesn't take long to clean, though," he says. Risk of breakage affected all the equipment. When the delimber grabbed wood, the arms could split a dry stem. The same thing happened with the buncher. Overall breakage was about 10 per cent.

The dry stems also forced them to change the skidder operation. "You can climb right over a pile of green wood, but burnt wood is dry and brittle. It would break up," Chevrefils explained. "We have to come alongside the pile instead with the grapple skidder, and we have to be very careful how we push the stems up so we don't get much breakage ." As a result, skidding was a little slower.

The contractor operates two Timberjack 450 grapple skidders, and a John Deere 648 grapple skidder. Each skidder is used about 1,300 hours a year. One of the 450 units also has a $50,000 set of 44inch flotation tires with full studded ice chains. The other two skidders run 30.5inch tires with ice chains.

The special set of flotation tires and chains has paid for itself in three years, Chevrefils notes. It extends the operating season for the whole crew because they can operate in soft conditions before swamps freeze and during warm periods in midwinter. "It means you don't have to shut down all the other machines," he said.

P& A's Komatsu PC200 stroke delimber was operating just as fast, or maybe a little faster, in the burnt wood. "When the branches are all on, you can't see the trunks as well. It might be a touch faster now because he can see the trunks better for pulling out of the pile ."

Slashing burnt wood, like felling it, produces more dirt. "There's a little more dirt to take off the air filter, but it's not a major issue," he says.

Loading was different, however. P & A had two permits, one for green wood and one for dry wood. "We're paid by weight. We have one factor for the dry wood and another for the green, but it works out to the same price per cord ."

Loads were large on the trucks carrying dry wood, because it was lighter than normal. "We didn't worry about being overweight, just overheight ." Managing the cut area also took more time because it contained green wood as well as burned wood. Chevrefils had to separate the types, along the burn boundary line. "That slowed us down some, but we had to separate the patches so we could do a decent job on it," he explains. The 'decent job,' in fact, led to a score of 99 per cent on P & A's environmental audit. He'd cut out the dry first, then the green. In this area, he had roughly equal amounts of green and dry wood.

The contractor ran the same experienced crew, same operations, same shifts and same equipment. Volumes produced were comparable to what he would have harvested anywhere else.

Chevrefils notes there were unpaid benefits, too. "This is the first time in maybe 15 years that we're close to home and not sitting in a bush camp ."

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