By Amie Silverwood
Feb. 2, 2015 - I recently took a trip to the heart of the region that suffered the most tree loss due to the mountain pine beetle epidemic. Prince George was my base as I travelled to Mackenzie, Vanderhoof and Quesnel to see how the forest industry has adapted to use trees that have been dead for over 10 years. Each sawmill I visited has come up with its own strategy for making due with the fibre quality and constraints that are only going to get more challenging. The pine is nearing the end of its shelf life – it won’t be long until the dry, brittle wood will no longer be useful as sawlogs.
Vanderhoof was in the region first hit with the pest, and the forests nearby are dominated by pine. Doug McComb, the harvesting superintendent for L&M Lumber, based in Vanderhoof, showed me their logging operations and the blue stain and checks that characterize the wood that was destroyed by the beetle. His company’s contractors have added an extra step in the process, decking the wood gently to reduce breakage. He told me they’re going to keep harvesting the beetle-kill as long as they can – the sawmill has added some optimizers that can check specifically for defects typical of the pine and have been able to salvage more lumber from the dead wood.
Once the wood is taken into the mill, it poses another problem. The sawdust from the dead pines is more combustible than sawdust from green trees – the region has paid dearly for this knowledge. A new sawmill in Mackenzie has come up with an innovative solution to dust control – the Duz Cho sawmill is outdoors. Rather than house the lines within the mill where the combustible dust can build up and cause a conflagration, it hugs the side of the building, taking advantage of a generous roof overhang and the wind and elements that will disperse the dust (other measures and regular cleaning have been put in place as well). It is only once the logs have been graded and stacked that the lumber enters the building for storage.
When Mill Operations Manager Bill Barwise showed me the mill, he explained that the mill only requires four staff to run the equipment. The employees are all trained with knowledge of each position, all are paid the same wage and they will regularly rotate from station to station. I imagine the indoor posts will be popular in February!
Cyril Thacker, fibre manager for Conifex, explained that the forests around Mackenzie have more spruce than the forests around Prince George. But still the challenge is to get the logs to the mill at a reasonable cost. Over the years, the accessible trees that have been devastated by the pest have been harvested. What is left for salvage has longer distances to travel to the mill. His solution is to build a merchandizing deck on Williston Lake that will ensure the logs are sorted and bound for their appropriate destination.
While processing dry, brittle pine that is nearing the end of its shelf life may be a challenge for the mills in the region, solutions have been found to get the most value out of all the fibre harvested. Equally challenging for mills in the region is finding the labour to operate the equipment. At each company I visited the story was the same – they’re actively and creatively trying to recruit workers. Skilled workers are the most sought after but bodies are needed all down the lines and in the forests.
I did see some young faces and met some sharp minds with bright futures. Programs like Project Heavy Duty are training young people who want to learn to operate heavy machinery and getting them job ready. I also met a bright young man who had worked in the oil and gas industry but wanted to return to his hometown. He is now actively problem-solving in a sawmill.
Recruiting from outside our industry takes a lot of time and everyone’s buy-in. The forest industry must compete against other industries for young recruits. A safe, stable job and the opportunity to participate in a sustainable industry is what is on offer.