Fort McMurray forestry industry braces for wildfire damage reports

May 24, 2016

By: Winnipeg Free Press

When the smoke cleared, unbelievably, there was good news.

A $1.5-million stockpile of logs harvested over the winter and stored in a gravel pit north of Fort McMurray had caught fire but only about half of it was consumed before the flames burned themselves out.

The stacks contained about 40,000 cubic metres, enough wood to fill four Olympic-sized swimming pools.

“There was actually no ground fire leading up to it so it was just the embers from the fire that fell in there,” Brent Rabik, business development manager for pulp producer Alberta Pacific Forest Industries or Al-Pac, said Friday.

“The way it was stacked, in certain areas, it burned the one area completely and then the rest of it is good.”

The log stack had been feared lost earlier in the week when the roaring wildfire that had earlier ripped through Fort McMurray turned north and destroyed the 665-unit Blacksand Executive Lodge. The logs were just two kilometres away.

Fort McMurray is best known as the epicentre of an oilsands resource estimated at 166 billion recoverable barrels, third-largest in the world. But it also supports two forestry companies and dozens of forestry jobs.

Reached Friday, president Howard Ewashko of Northland Forest Products said he was too busy dealing with issues at his company’s sawmill operations to conduct any interviews. He and his staff have been camped out at the mill north of the city for most of the past week battling the wildfire that approached and threatened to destroy the operation.

“We’re fixing stuff, critical stuff,” he said, before saying goodbye and hanging up.

The extent of the damage to the stacked and standing wood supplies of Northland and Al-Pac isn’t yet known.

However, the early spring setback makes it unlikely that Alberta’s forestry industry will see a repeat of 2015’s four-year high output of about $3 billion worth of pulp, lumber and panel products, said Paul Whittaker, president and CEO of the Alberta Forest products Association.

He estimated that Northland would be out of business for four to six weeks but didn’t think the outage would greatly affect total production or prices for Alberta wood products.

“Production should be down a little bit,” said Whittaker. “The industry is of sufficient size that it’s conceivable someone else could fill that hole. But unlikely.”

Rabik said Al-Pac has been concentrating on moving stacked logs from the Fort McMurray area to its pulp mill site in Boyle, about 300 kilometres south.

“Normally we would stage that wood through most of the summer,” he said. “We’re trying to move all of that out because we have an investment in getting the timber to that point.”

The Alberta government regulates how much wood can be harvested from Crown land by forestry companies, essentially allowing each company to take out as much each year as will be replaced through tree growth.

Rabik said Al-Pac’s allowable cut may actually grow this year because it will likely be allowed to harvest damaged trees before they begin to rot. In future years, however, its cut could be reduced because of the loss of forest.

Al-Pac produces about 650,000 tonnes of hardwood and softwood pulp annually from its 6.5 million hectare forest management area — covering about 10 per cent of Alberta. Its annual wood requirement is 2.8 million cubic metres.

The company is owned by Tokyo-based Hokuetsu Kishu Paper Company Ltd.

Follow @HealingSlowly on Twitter.

By: Winnipeg Free Press

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