Burned timber waiting to be processed at Tolko Industries in Williams Lake. Monica Lamb-Yorski photo

Burned timber still salvageable, but clock is ticking

Ministry has expedited cutting permits and is looking at landscape rehabilitation on burn areas

Blackened logs have been a common sight, piled high on logging trucks travelling in to local mills this season.

Since the 2017 wildfires got under control last October, 1.3 million cubic metres of fire-impacted timber has been put under cutting permits, Doug Donaldson, Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD), tells the Observer.

“Much of that is going to mills in the Cariboo, more Williams Lake than [Quesnel],” he explains, saying timber affected by the Plateau fire is still useable. Some of the burned timber is not merchantable due to the intensity of the fires.

Between April 1 and Nov. 30, 2017, 1,346 wildfires had burned more than 1.2 million hectares in B.C., according to a FLNRORD press release issued in December 2017.

Burned timber is only salvageable for a year or two after a fire, sometimes less.

“We saw rapid degradation of live spruce logs that were burned by 2017 fires in TFL 52 [Tree Farm Licence 52] east of Quesnel. There were large spiral checks to the core of the trees by November 2017, and we suspect those types of damaged trees will not make lumber after the summer of 2018 due to cracking.

“That is an example of a few months, and the other end of the spectrum can be 1-2 years. We expect a slightly longer shelf life of 3 years or so for burned Douglas fir,” says West Fraser woods manager Stuart Lebeck, who is based in Quesnel.

And Lebeck says there are special considerations that need to be taken into account when processing burned logs.

“The majority of recoverable timber is Douglas fir, which exists primarily in the burned forests near Williams Lake and in the south. Debarking capital is a consideration if a mill is not set up to run Douglas fir,” he says.

Charred wood can cause damage to equipment, and Lebeck also explains that burned timber doesn’t have the same shelf life as timber affected by mountain pine beetle, deteriorating much more quickly once it has been processed.

“The chips from the process of making lumber cannot be used in any of the B.C. interior pulp mills at this point [if they are charred],” says Lebeck.

The timber can be used for dimensional lumber, specialty lumber, fibre for energy and pellets.

But Lebeck says it is difficult to determine what’s useable and what’s not before the logs get to the mills.

“[There is the risk] that we commit to take on a stand for sawmilling that is not suitable for lumber,” he says, noting that when logging a burn area, the company needs to recover 70 per cent of the volume in order to be in line with the province’s utilization expectation.

Minister Donaldson says the Ministry has been expediting cutting permits to make sure the timber is used, and is also focusing on rehabilitating the landscape.

“We’ve got millions of seedlings started in nurseries for planting, and we’re looking at seeding programs to halt invasive weeds and control erosion,” he says.

There is uncertainty, however, for the interim time, after the salvageable burned logs have been depleted and new seedlings growing large enough to harvest.

“The chief forester has already had a look at the short term AAC [annual allowable cut] and ensured that it is at a sustainable level,” says Donaldson.

“When we get to mid-term, that’s where the question marks remain.”

Lebeck says the industry is working with the province on regeneration efforts.

“Since the majority of area that burned in 2017 were areas that were already salvaged for pine beetle, there remains an obligation for industry to regenerate those areas. We also have a reforestation on all areas we harvest,” he explains.

But he says the challenge in terms of regeneration will be crown lands that burned that did not already have a legal regeneration obligation, like unsalvaged crown lands or older plantations.

The Forest Enhancement Society and Forests For Tomorrow and some of the B.C. low carbon economy funds are examples of funding the province has available to focus on this crown forest restoration, and this is an opportunity for Quesnel,” says Lebeck.

Quesnel hosted a Future of Forestry Think Tank last week, which was held to explore topics including how to best utilize the forest fibre that is available. Industry experts, researchers and policy makers gathered at Quesnel’s College of New Caledonia campus to come up with ideas to move the forestry industry forward.

“I really see a lot of innovation around the province,” says Donaldson.

“We as a government have to find the policy tools to unlock that innovation further.”

In terms of preventing future wildfires, Donaldson says the government is putting an emphasis on dealing with fuel management near communities.

“That can be dual purpose. It can reduce fire threat, and free up fibre for local milling and other value-added facilities,” he explains.

The Ministry is reviewing a recently received report on the government’s response to flooding and wildfire last year.

The report, which was commissioned by the Ministry from former Liberal MLA George Abbott and First Nation Chief Maureen Chapman, included 108 recommendations on flood and wildfire protocols.

“[The] recommendations will take some time to fully consider,” commented Donaldson in a press release on the report yesterday (May 10).

“There are some recommendations that are being acted on already. For example, as part of Budget 2018, we’re committing $50 million over three years to wildfire prevention and wildfire risk reduction around communities.”

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