BC forest fires, dry timber complicate logging plans for forestry companies
8 August 2009
published by The Canadian Press
Canada — British Columbia’s fire season is complicating things for the province’s ailing forest industry.
Except for pockets in the northeast and southeast, most of British Columbia is rated at a high or extreme risk of fire.
And while the economy has meant many operations are shut down, those that are operating are having to be careful their work doesn’t spark another fire.
Forest companies always factor the fire threat into their logging plans, harvesting in early spring or late fall in fire-prone regions or shifting to low-risk areas.
But those areas are hard to find in a year when almost a thousand square kilometres have already been blackened and there’s at least six weeks left in the fire season.
“The situation on the coast is almost unprecedented by the lack of moisture and fire risk,” said Archie MacDonald, general manager of forestry for the Council of Forest Industries, which represents coastal operators.
“All the indicators are so high, I don’t think anybody’s ever seen them at these levels before.”
The B.C. Forest Service says there have been 413 fires caused by equipment use since 2006, though they can’t all be attributed to forestry activity.
Specific causes include hot exhaust, burning equipment, blasting, grinding, friction logging, welding and random sparks.
No one wants a fire in the woods, MacDonald said.
The industry is governed by the Wildfire Act, which specifies the risks, obligations and liabilities of forest companies and sets out damages and penalties for those who ignore them.
“Not only does it burn the resource that we’re trying to capture and utilize … it also causes significant disruptions to operations,” said MacDonald.
MacDonald said sparks from metal on rock – dragging chains or cables, the tracks of heavy equipment – are probably the biggest threat.
“Whenever there are industry-caused fires, typically that’s where a lot of them start from,” he said.
Logging crews keep firefighting equipment – including extinguishers, water, hand tools and radios to call in help – on hand to snuff out incipient blazes.
In areas that are already burning, forest companies will wait until the fire threat has passed and then try to salvage as much of the burned timber as possible.
“Much of the wood that was burnt in the 2003 fires was able to be harvested,” Forests Minister Pat Bell points out.
“It’s a bit early but I know that Prime Minister Harper … has suggested that he’s prepared to look at some form of funding to help support British Columbia through this emergency and that may be one of the opportunities.”
The amount of salvageable timber depends on the intensity of the fire.
“Typically we’re pretty effective at capturing the value of these fire-impacted stands,” said Bell.
“As long as they’re not the hot, intense fires where the trees literally burn to the ground we should be OK.”
B.C. lumber mills have the technology to take off the outer portion of charred wood, he said.
It’s more challenging to produce pulp chips from burned trees because no charred material can find its way into the mix.
“That is one of the areas where there is a bit of a negative impact as a result of fire activity,” the minister said.
Ironically, the recession has blunted the impact of this fire season on the forestry industry because there’s less demand for timber.
“We do have a significant number of operations that have curtailed operations or downsized, taken shutdowns, etcetera,” said MacDonald.
“The current demand in terms of logs and raw materials isn’t nearly what it has been in previous years.”
Some unemployed workers are turning up on the fire line, especially those who can run the heavy equipment needed to build fire guards, he said.
The mills that are still operating have enough timber feedstock for now, said Bell.
“Most of the mills were able to get sufficient logs in their yards that they’re not in a crisis situation.”
While demand is still fairly weak, markets have factored the fires into lumber prices, which have strengthened a little.
“A forest fire in the lumber industry is equivalent to a drought in the grain industry where the grains spike up in price,” Ashley Boeckholt, an analyst with Bloch Lumber in Chicago, said in a recent interview
“There is a tremendous potential for the price to go up if (more fires) happen.”
The fire situation appeared relatively stable Friday, with most evacuees in Lillooet and near Vernon returning home.
However, more than 2,000 people in the Fintry and Lillooet areas and in Bella Coola, on the coast, were still under evacuation order because of continued fire threats.
The extreme-risk rating is more widespread than in 2003, when fires raced through southern British Columbia, razing more than 200 homes and forcing almost 50,000 people to flee.