Wildfires that swept through the northern Alberta forest near Fort McMurray last May continue to frustrate loggers trying to harvest wood from trees killed by the fire before insects and rot make it unusable.
The blaze, which destroyed 1,800 single family homes in the city, burned so hot as high winds pushed it through the dry forest that harvesters are finding only a third of the salvageable wood they expected to see.
“This was a very intense burn, more intense that we’ve seen in previous fires,” said Cal Dakin, woodlands manager for Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries.
The big pulp operator had expected to salvage more than two million cubic metres of wood from fire-ravaged areas this season and next, but Dakin said he now thinks it will recover less than 700,000 cubic metres.
Most of the timber cutting in the Fort McMurray area takes place during the winter when frozen wetlands and ice bridges over rivers allow crews and heavy equipment to get to where the trees are. The logs are often stockpiled near roads for pickup during the summer.
President Howard Ewashko of Northland Forest Products in Fort McMurray said his crews are finding the same situation as Alberta-Pacific’s, adding that the trees killed by the ferocious fire are also deteriorating faster than expected.
The wildfire burned to within a few kilometres of the sawmill, giving Ewashko and his employees a front-row view.
“Usually there’s quite a bit of salvage out of fires,” he said. “In the nighttime, when the humidity rises, (the fire) creeps along the floor of the forest and you don’t get this bad burn in the trees.
“We were up all hours of the night and the fire was in the treetops. If it was good stand of spruce or fir or pine, it burned hot, didn’t matter what time of day.”
Ewashko said he hired about 80 logging contractors this winter, down from 120 a year ago. The fire forced the sawmill to shut down for two months, leaving it with an unusually high unsold inventory and an operating loss for the year, he said.
Dakin said the wildfire burned through nearly 600,000 hectares containing an estimated 14 million cubic metres of timber.
Renato Gandia, press secretary for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier, said the province requires companies with forest management areas to utilize as much of the fire-killed timber as possible within two years of an incident.
He said in an email that a company’s timber dues paid to the government are lower for fire-damaged wood than for green timber to reflect the increased cost of harvesting and decreased volume of viable wood.
Alberta-Pacific produces about 600,000 tonnes of pulp each year at its mill about 260 kilometres south of Fort McMurray.