The multi-billion-dollar oilsands facilities around Fort McMurray weren’t the only large industrial operations at risk when wildfires tore through the region over the past week.
Alberta’s $4 billion forest products industry also felt the heat, quite literally.
Two industry players in particular — Fort McMurray-based Northland Forest Products, a big sawmill operator, and Boyle-based Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, one of Canada’s top pulp producers— suffered unspecified losses to timberlands that will take months to quantify.
Company officials with both firms say they’ll start assessing the extent of the fire damage in coming weeks, once smoke from the blaze, which now covers an estimated 220,000 hectares, starts to clear.
“As far as we know our homes are okay, but we haven’t had any information since Thursday or Friday so we really don’t know what’s going on,” says Howard Ewashko, who co-owns Northland with his brother Craig and also lives on the same street in Fort McMurray.
“Right now we’re just trying to get our servers online and we’re chatting to our customers and our contractors, and assuring them that we’re still around. As soon as we can we’ll start shipping wood and start harvesting this winter again.”
The good news? Northland’s sawmill north of Fort McMurray, which pumps out about 300,000 board feet of lumber annually, was untouched by the blaze. The company’s co-owners remained on site throughout the evacuation.
Meanwhile, Alberta-Pacific’s huge pulp mill, which is located far to the southwest of the fire’s path, was never threatened by the blaze.
But Alberta-Pacific’s massive Forest Management Agreement (FMA) — which gives it authority over 6.4 million hectares of forested land, or an area nearly 30 times larger than the fire zone itself — was affected.
Ditto for the woodlands that Northland harvests under quota to supply its sawmill. Those woodlands cover about half of Alberta-Pacific’s total FMA.
“We did a preliminary assessment (of fire damage to timber) but until we can get out there and assess how hot it burned and through which stands, it’s difficult to make an assessment,” says Cal Dakin, woodlands manager with Alberta-Pacific.
“Fires burn really hot in the muskeg and in the lowlands but often times it’s not as bad in the aspen stands. If you have uplands aspen and spruce stands, the fire will often drop down and hit the ground, and the majority of those stands can survive,” he explains.
“However, based on this fire with it being a wind-driven event and with the drought codes as high as they are now, we’re expecting that it’s going to be a fairly significant burn.”
Ewashko says his company’s 60 full-time employees have scattered since the Fort McMurray evacuation order was issued, and it’s unclear when — or in some cases, even if — they’ll return to Alberta’s oilsands capital.
“We haven’t started the (worker recall) process because we have no timelines yet for the town reopening. So we’re going to see if we can start with a makeshift camp in the yard. Otherwise if it lasts too long then we will lose some of our people,” he fears.
“So I guess the immediate impact of the fire is the shutdown or stoppage of the mill itself, the displacement of employees and whether they come back to Fort McMurray or not.”
As for quantifying the damage to the company’s timberlands — which stretch from the Wood Buffalo region to Wandering River, then further southwest to Boyle — Ewashko echoes Dakin’s view that it will be a time-consuming process.
“I guess the really tricky part now is what is burnt heavily, and what is burnt not too bad. It will depend on whether the fire went through at night or during the day, and how badly trees are burnt. That’s the part that takes time to map out.”
Dakin says the key to determining what wood is salvageable is how badly charred a tree is, as well as how high up and how deeply the trunk is burned. “Based on what I’ve seen so far I think a lot of this wood is not going to be salvageable,” he predicts.
As massive and dramatic as this week’s blaze was, Dakin notes that it is far from the biggest fire in Alberta history.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize it but the House River fire in 2002 was bigger and the Richardson fire in 2011 was also bigger, but they occurred north of our FMA. So fires of this size are not unprecedented. We have seen them before.”
Unfortunately, given the massive scale of Alberta’s boreal forest, the impact of climate change, the prevalence of drought cycles and the increasing average age of the province’s woodlands, we can also expect to see them again.