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Logging and Sawmilling Journal

Ontario's Firesteel Contractors stands ready to change its operations and turn out more sawlogs, with a new sawmill for Thunder Bay. 

By Dave Lammers

Dan Macsemchuk is pondering a return to the days when the family logging business was built on sawlogs. The family-owned company, Firesteel Contractors Ltd, currently operates one of the largest chipping plants in northwestern Ontario. 

The plant is located just west of Thunder Bay, near Kakabeka Falls. Macsemchuk's review of operations and what they produce is prompted by the announcement by forestry giant Bowater for a new sawmill in Thunder Bay. "We grew up in a sawlog operation," Macsemchuk recalls. "But when Bowater changed their operations, we went to chipping. "To me, it's still a crime to chew up a log for chips," adds Macsemchuk, who would welcome a return to producing more sawlogs, even though it could mean 50 per cent less production at the chipping plant. 

Only 25 percent of Firesteel's current production is sawlogs. The company operates on Bowater's licence west of Thunder Bay in the Boreal Road area with three feller bunchers as well as a cut-to-length system-all on an owner-operator basis. The chipping plant processes tree length, as well as modified tree length and short wood. "It's pretty unique in that respect I guess," says Bruce Macsemchuk, Dan's brother and partner at Firesteel. 

The chipper is an 84-inch Morbark which operates with two debarking lines. The main debarker is a Nicholson A5 and the side debarker is an 18-inch Cambio. "One of the things we looked at when we went to a ring debarker is the serviceability of the machinery," notes Bruce. "We're going to get a lot more years out of it than maybe a flail machine. It's more hands on. 

Firesteel works with an 84-inch Morbark chipper which produces 16 to 20 loads a day, operating on three shifts.

You see every log coming out of the debarker-you can tell if the bark is coming off properly. And our chips have stayed very consistent." The chipping plant runs 24 hours a day and employs eight workers on three shifts, producing 16 to 20 loads a day-or approximately 900 cubic metres. In addition to the Cat 229 used to feed the plant, there are a few other Cat units at work. A Cat 980 is used to unload logging trucks and two Cat 966 units are put into service to load chips and gravel. 

Cat 325 and 225 units round out the loading/unloading equipment crew. The plant was established permanently off the Boreal Road six years ago, as logging terrain in the area became more challenging. "All the flat ground and the gravelled areas were cut years ago," Bruce explains. "We're finding we have to work in a lot more bedrock areas and hilly areas." 

A third buncher was recently added to increase productivity while cutting blowdown, and still another may yet be added. Owner-operator machines include two 618 Timberjacks and one 850 Timberjack; two are using fully rotating heads, a Forestpro and a GN Roy. 

Bruce Macsemchuk (left) and Dan Macsemchuk of Firesteel Contractors.

Firesteel is also looking at adding a machine with a grapple/saw to work in the blowdown in the next two years, where production has been reduced by 50 per cent. The company has two 648 John Deere skidders, one Deere 748 and a Cat 325 for loading tree length-all on an owner-operator basis.

Firesteel has also run an owner-operator cut-to-length system for five years. A Timberjack 608 and Koehring 762C, along with a Timbco 815 forwarder, produce three loads a day. "It's to get that sawlog productivity out," explains Dan. "We have a slasher that works in our chip yard. When there's good enough material there, it will slash logs. But we had some stands that were really nice sawlog material. 

It was better to produce the sawlogs right there, load the truck and send them directly to town, rather than bring them to the plant, offload them and then reload them. The cost of cut-to-length is a little bit more, but it's just a lot simpler operation." All sawlogs go to Buchanan Forest Products in Thunder Bay. 

Tree length is hauled to the chip plant if it isn't sawlog quality. A mixture of pine, spruce, balsam, poplar and some birch chips go to Bowater in Thunder Bay. Firesteel, one of the major logging contractors in the Thunder Bay area, will harvest a total of 200,000 cubic metres this year. The company also does its own road maintenance and construction, building approximately 15 kilometres of new roads per year. 

Road building is done with a Hitachi EX300 as the main excavator, along with a Cat excavator and D8 dozers-all company-owned machinery. Firesteel still benefits from relatively short distances from the stump to the mill- averaging around 90 kilometres. Dan notes that logging has become more and more of a volume business since his father, Tony, formed Firesteel in the late 1960s. At one time, Tony had 18 cut-and-skid crews operating further to the west in the Upsala area. 

"We probably do about three times as much product," Dan notes. "We probably don't make near as much money. It's a tough market. It's hard to compete today. The margins are thin and it has become a volume business. In order to make a profit you have to turn a big volume." T

he company has benefited from owner-operator arrangements and has worked to reduce costs, including "not having any other supervisors than ourselves," says Dan. "We've had company-owned equipment and although it worked all right, it's not as efficient as having owner operators," adds Bruce. "The productivity you get out of an owner-operator is much higher than what you get out of a company-owned machine," says Bruce, noting Firesteel still runs one company owned delimber, as well as an owner operator delimber-both Hitachi units.

Another challenge facing Firesteel are the legislative changes, including pending operator certification, that will make it more difficult to find qualified operators, says Dan. In the next 10 years, Firesteel will also have to deal with logging further out. The cost of building roads will also continue to rise, as the terrain becomes more challenging. "The pocket of wood we're working in is only so large. So if we stay the size we are, we can operate in the area for a number of years yet," says Bruce, 43, who looks after bush operations. 

Dan adds that Firesteel may yet expand its operations depending on the plans of younger brother Dave, 30, who works mostly at the chipping plant. Dan, 50, has worked full time at Firesteel since 1973 and is company president, over seeing the office and chipping plant. Firesteel hopes to benefit from an increased demand for tree length wood with the new mill. 

Dan says the company is prepared for a reduction at the chipping plant as it adjusts to meet Bowater's demands. "We're hoping it's going to be positive," says Dan. He notes other contractors in the area who are into full tree chipping will have to make more substantial changes to their operations. 

Firesteel has also obtained a facility licence to purchase wood for its chipping plant. "I don't anticipate the plant becoming defunct. It just may not work as many hours in a week as it does right now," says Dan. He adds that cut-to-length may also be eliminated from the operation if Bowater requires tree length only-though Firesteel has an obligation to provide Buchanan with a certain amount of sawlogs. "Now what's happening with the change, the tree length is going to go to town. 

The flail machines are going to be seeing less and less work," says Dan. "I think tree length to town is probably a little bit more efficient than what we're doing because we'll be loading the wood once. So we'll be sending any of the jackpine-any of the spruce that's good quality-directly to the mill and the chip plant will get the poplar, birch and balsam." Regardless of what happens, however, Firesteel stands ready to be flexible and deal with the changes.

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