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New Look For A Grand Old Lady

Badly damaged by fire last winter, Northwood's historic mill in tiny Upper Fraser is set to re-open.

By Jim Stirling
Copyright 1997. Contact publisher for permission to use.

On a bone-chilling night in January, employees of Northwood Pulp & Timber's mill in Upper Fraser fought to save the plant, and their jobs, from fire. By morning, the fire was out but it was clear to all that the old mill was too badly damaged to remain open.

This spring, employees and others in the tiny community were relieved to learn that the sawmill would be rebuilt. Throughout the summer a new front end took tangible shape. And by fall the sawdust should be flying once more, renewing a long tradition of sawmilling at the site. About 215 direct jobs have been retained at the mill and small townsite alongside the Fraser River, about 85 km northeast of Prince George in central British Columbia.

The new look will be configured in a manner similar to the one heavily damaged by the fire. The addition of a merchandising deck and equipment improvements, however, is expected to allow more efficient log handling and utilization onsite, and allocation of timber to the company's small log sawmill in Prince George.The Upper Fraser sawmill will continue to produce about 220,000 MFBM of lumber a year in up to 24' lengths.

Upper Fraser and sawmills have been intertwined since the early 1930s. Fire is also an unfortunate part of the legacy; a blaze necessitated a complete mill rebuild in 1956. If Upper Fraser isn't Northwood's flagship mill, it has to rank as its Grand Old Lady and a faithful workhorse. It was one of the first two mills purchased by Noranda Mines in 1961. Three years later, Noranda and Mead Corp. formed Northwood Pulp & Timber Ltd. The mill has undergone several subsequent upgrades to retain its competitiveness.

None of that was foremost in employees' minds late in the evening of Sunday, January 26, 1997. There is no good time for a sawmill fire but conditions could hardly have been worse.

"It was about -36-C that night and it was difficult to keep hoses from freezing up," recalls Mark Hinchliff, general manager, forest and solid woods operations for Northwood's Prince George region. Everyone among the staff and volunteer fire department at Upper Fraser has a recollection of conditions that night. "I'm really pleased with how the group handled it. Even when they could see their livelihoods in jeopardy, they didn't take undue chances," says Hinchliff. There was only one minor injury.

Crews had the presence of mind to build a berm to protect the ice-choked Fraser River. The river was never at risk but it demonstrated in a crunch situation how emergency response training had proved effective. "I'm really proud of them - they did a superb job,"endorses Hinchliff.

By the time the fire's perimeter was contained, the infeed section of the two-line mill, including cut-off saw and debarkers plus the canter line, had been heavily damaged. The rest of the mill was saved from the flames but there was extensive smoke damage penetrating the mill's far end, including the scanner on the 75-bin J-bar sorter. The planer was unaffected and custom work helped support a one-shift daily production through the decision making/rebuild phases. The precise cause of the fire remained under investigation, although the area it started in has been established.

Northwood's senior management and shareholders had a difficult decision to make in the wake of the fire. Assessing options and analyzing ramifications absorbed time. One consideration was the option for capital investment opportunity outside BC. The cold reality is the economic climate in the province is not the best, says Hinchliff. The company also looked at the community of Upper Fraser and its many long-term and loyal employees, he notes. "But we didn't sit on our hands after January 27. We did a lot of preliminary work so when the trigger was pulled things happened quite quickly."

And that auspicious date was April 14, when company shareholders officially sanctioned the capital asset replacement program estimated to cost between $15 million and $20 million, says Hinchliff. The timber supply in the Upper Fraser region and trends affecting it was another major component of the rebuild decision. "The timber supply available to us has been diminishing," notes Hinchliff. The company had to be satisfied that enough timber remained to sustain a rebuild given current harvesting practices. Further complicating the issue, the Upper Fraser mill was geared to handle only the larger portions of logs. Large wood has been trucked in on occasions from areas west of Prince George to support the Upper Fraser mill.

That is where the merchandising deck fits into the equation. "It allows us to maximize the volume we mill in Upper Fraser and minimize the volume we forward to Prince George (small log mill)," he explains.

The merchandiser deck designed by Murray-Pacific Design Services will also address bush sorting problems. "We have limited landing sizes and deep snow. Measuring and bucking small top pieces is not very practical in the bush; it's a materials handling nightmare. Now we can transfer all the wood from the bush to a controlled environment to do it," he outlines.

The deck will incorporate computerized optimization based on a transverse scanning system to accurately buck logs. "The merchandising deck will buck logs to achieve the highest dollar value return. It will sort out any logs 6'' diameter and smaller and deliver them to a pocket for forwarding to the Prince George mill where the processing system is designed for them." The merchandising deck probably won't be fully operational until the winter logging season gets going in November.

A butt'n top will feed the deck with logs up to 75' long, from 4'' tops to 20'' butts. Large butt ends (up to 48'') will go through a 72'' cut off saw, debarker and infeed to the mill's head rig side. Logs from the cut-off saw can be directed to the canter line. But all material from the merchandising deck goes through the canter line.

It is prefaced with the first 27'' Nicholson A7 debarker. Optimil is building a four-headed canter with double-length infeed designed to handle logs 22'' in diameter and smaller. It will be controlled by a Porter Engineering scanning system similar to one that was installed on the original canter about a year before the fire. "We were very pleased with it," says Hinchliff.

Feed speeds through the canter line will be increased, reflecting the larger numbers of smaller logs to be processed at Upper Fraser. Variable-frequency drives will help accommodate line speed increases from more than 300 lineal ft./min. to about 415 ft./min. Installation of drum-style heads will help improve chip quality. One of two Ukiah gang edgers was repaired on site. Both machines can handle anything the canter produces and the two units can be used to balance flow in the mill. Finer kerfs and plate sizes are planned for the gang edgers.

Downstream the two Ukiah (now McGehee) board edgers with Newnes scanners are unchanged. It's the same story on the Newnes trimmer and J-bar, although, as mentioned, the scanning system received smoke damage.

On the head rig side, a new 35'' Nicholson A1 debarker with movable rings to centre on the log will take up duty. The CAE head rig with three-bunk carriage, double-cut band mill and chip slabber head was not significantly damaged. Side boards from the head rig will continue going through a five-saw Ukiah edger but with a new Newnes scanning system. Cants go to one of the two gang edgers. From the gang outfeeds material is routed to the two board edgers and transferred to the trimmer.

Plans were to have the head rig line running in July. Some juggling around and temporary positioning of equipment was necessary to accomplish that. The A7 debarker was located to supply the head rig. A temporary repair job to the edger scanners and trimmer scanner and by-passing one of the gang edgers was planned to get the head rig line producing lumber.

The new Optimil canter line should be running in September, followed by the merchandiser deck. The rebuild work was being put out to tender with B.I.D. Construction of Prince George, the general contractor on the job. Northwood is construction manager for the project.

Many Upper Fraser employees were involved in the labourious clean-up process after the fire, which left a tangled, blackened mess of debris. "The crew have done a great job at putting all the pieces back together," commends an appreciative Charlie Meints, plant manager at Upper Fraser. "They have painted much of the mill's interior, which was stained by smoke, and the original equipment looks new again. Our crews are really keen on getting this place running as a sawmill again," says Meints. He's noticed something else: the fire may have destroyed the mill's front end but it has rebuilt and reinforced a whole lot of pride in the operation.

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