Wet weather impact on Tolko unprecedented

Last year it was forest fires. This year it was rain.

Last year it was forest fires. This year it was rain.

Both conditions added to the already difficult situation for local forestry workers created by the economic struggles in the U.S., Canada’s primary lumber market.

“People are saying it’s the wettest season they have ever seen,” says Mark Everard, site manager for Tolko’s Lakeview and Creekside lumber divisions.

“On average we were over two times our normal precipitation in the months of May, June, and July, Everard says. “We continue to see the results of that in August and September.”

He says woodland operations are normally shut down for three-to-six weeks during spring breakup when roads and forests are too wet from the spring melt to operate on, but they are normally able to keep the mills operating through breakup by bringing in extra wood ahead of time. This year, he says Tolko Lakeview brought in an additional 50,000 cubic meters of logs, but that extra volume still wasn’t enough to keep the mill operating normally. Tolko’s Lakeview had four weeks of down time over the spring and summer due to wet conditions which continued to shut down logging and trucking operations in the bush.

“This is absolutely not normal. We didn’t want to be shut down, but we couldn’t get into the bush and couldn’t operate in the bush,” Everard says. Last year he says forest fires curtailed some of their woodland operations out west but they were still able to bring in enough wood supply to keep the Tolko Lakeview and Tolko Soda Creek mills operating

“The fires last summer were devastating, but we were able to continue operating and divert some of our resources to helping to fight the forest fires,” Everard says.

He says they have also made some operational changes at Tolko Lakeview this year so they can utilize some of the wood that was scorched by the forest fires last summer.

Tom Hoffman, Tolko’s woods manager, says the rain fall reported by the Williams Lake weather station for May, June and July of this year is twice the historical average. Typically he says we receive 146.2 millimetres of rain during this period. This year 288.9 millimetres of rain fell during May, June and July.

Due to the rainy, wet conditions, Hoffman says they were only able to bring in 75 per cent of the wood they budgeted to deliver.

He says weather continued to play havoc with woods operations when temperatures started to soar at the end of August and the first part of September, and they had to shut down operations periodically due to the high forest fire hazard.

Ironically, at one point, he says operations in one cut block had to be shut down in one area due to the fire hazard, and in another area of the same cut block due wet inaccessible roads.

“If it wasn’t so painful it would be comical,” Hoffman says.

Todd Walters, sawmill superintendent at Soda Creek mill, says they have endured similar conditions out west. Due to wet weather he says they have been running with only four-and-a-half days of log inventory ahead and also had to take one week of down time in the spring because they couldn’t get any logs.

Given the type of ground they are working on out west he says the ground could be too wet to work on one week and so hot and dry the next week that woodland operations are curtailed due to the fire hazard.

“It’s a real flip-flop out west,” Walters says.

He says Soda Creek also had to shut down eight shifts on the high speed line in January due to a small fire. While 2010 was one of the worst years for accidents at the Soda Creek mill, Walters says safety performance has greatly improved this past year. “I am really proud of everyone having safety in the forefront of their minds, on and off the job,” Walters says.

Despite abilities to cope with fire and rain, Everard says the industry is bracing for a reduction in the annual allowable cut to compensate for the uptick in the AAC over the past few years in order to get the beetle-killed timber harvested and processed while it is still viable.

“There will be a long-term thriving forest industry into the future but there will be a fall down,” Everard says.

He says the pine beetle epidemic peaked about five years ago. In the early years of the attack he says it was estimated that the standing dead trees would only be viable for processing for three to five years.

“What we have found in actual practice is that the timber can have an economically viable shelf life for up to 15 years,” Everard says. “The longer shelf life tends to occur in dryer operating areas.”

While this discovery may extend the wood supply, he says the beetles are also responsible for unexpected costs on the sustainability side of operations.

He says it was originally thought that the beetles attacked only the mature, 80-to-100-year-old trees, but many of the young forests that were planted 10-to-30 years ago have been decimated by the pine beetle and need to be re-planted for a second time.

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