British Columbia

Fires compound losses of harvestable timber in B.C.'s Interior

Just as recovery efforts following the pine beetle epidemic have wrapped up, the province is facing major wildfires that threaten to burn through what experts say is a dwindling supply of valuable timber stands in the province's Interior.

'Part of the tragedy ... is that fires are also burning through trees spared by the pine beetle'

So far in 2017, 75 per cent of all the land that has been burned in B.C. has been in the Cariboo. (Hytest Timber)

Williams Lake residents are trickling back into town, but, until the smoke clears, the extent of the damage this season's fires have wrought on British Columbia's forestry sector won't be clear.

Major forestry-based employers in the Interior have been forced to halt operations in Chasm, 100 Mile House, Williams Lake and Quesnel due to evacuation orders and a shortage of raw materials.

"Already, the markets are responding with the perception that there are or will be lumber shortages," said Phil Burton, a professor of forest ecology and management at the University of Northern British Columbia.

Production, harvesting halted

Production was halted Monday at Tolko's Quest Wood mill in Quesnel, putting 200 staff out of work due to a shortage of raw materials, according to a statement on the company's website.

"With the curtailment of Quest Wood and the closures of our Lakeview and Soda Creek mills due to the evacuation order in Williams Lake, approximately three million board feet of lumber per day has been removed from the market," said the statement.

A number of other operations throughout the Interior have reported shutdowns or reduced operations, including four mills in Williams Lake which closed due to mandatory evacuations. 

Some mills are hoping to resume operations as orders are lifted.

In Williams Lake, Tim Menning is watching his bank account as closely as the regional district's fire updates.

He owns Hytest Timber Co., a harvesting operation that employs about 65 people. When the town was evacuated on the night of July 9, Menning stayed behind to help fight the fires and maintain his business.

"You've still got payments to make and facilities to maintain and essential crews to keep going," he said, adding that about 10 of his staff are using company equipment to combat nearby fires.

Harvesting operations, like Menning's, supply production mills with the raw material that mills planning to reopen in Williams Lake on Monday will soon need.

However, he said it's unlikely harvesting will resume until the end of the summer, given the ongoing risk of logging equipment sparking a new fire.

"I don't think government, or even industry for that matter, has got too much of an appetite to entertain more risk at this point," he said. "We've got more than we can handle now."

Menning estimates he will lose between $1 million and $1.5 million in revenue by the end of the month.

Walt Cobb, mayor of Williams Lake, B.C., said that although fire danger still remains, he was happy to welcome the city's residents home after an evacuation order was downgraded to an alert on Thursday. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Compounding losses

While it's not known how much valuable timber has actually gone up in smoke, industry analysts have concerns the fires will compound B.C.'s dwindling timber supply.

"Part of the tragedy we are dealing with is that fires are also burning through trees spared by the pine beetle outbreak, including young planted stands that were being counted on as timber supply over the next several decades," said Burton.

Harvestable timber allowances — referred to as annual allowable cut (AAC) — are generally set for each timber supply area in the province every 10 years, though some regions have seen reassessment after five years.

While AAC plans account for an average loss of timber due to fires, insects and other factors, Burton said the practice is outdated.

Instead, he'd like to see the province adapt a more timely and responsive system for determining a sustainable annual allowable cut as the effects of global warming become more urgent.

"There is no so such thing as historical averages or those averages are meaningless now," he told Gloria Macarenko, guest host of CBC's The Early Edition.

Burton suggested Alberta's policy of reassessing allowable cut, whenever losses exceed a certain percentage, may be a good alternative as fire seasons grow increasingly unpredictable.

The mountain pine beetle devastated B.C. forests for more than a decade, killing valuable softwood over an area of more than 18 million hectares as it spread north and east into Alberta. (Wikimedia Commons)

Recovery tactics

One thin potential silver lining may be that a reduced supply of harvestable timber could be a valuable bargaining chip at the U.S.-Canada softwood lumber negotiating table, according to Naomi Christensen, a senior policy analyst with Canada West Foundation.

Negotiators have been arguing subsidized Canadian lumber could flood the market and undermine U.S. timber operations.

"So we can't flood the U.S. market even if we wanted to," she said. "We can't do anything about the effects of mountain pine beetle and forest fires, but we can point out that the economic reality is our timber market is decreasing, not increasing,"

The Ministry of Forests Lands and Natural Resources said it won't be able to determine the full impact until after the flames are extinguished, but the Cariboo has been one of the hardest hit areas. 

The B.C. Wildfire Service reported that, as of July 27, the Cariboo region accounted for 75 per cent of the total 380,739 hectares that have burned provincewide in 2017.

In B.C.'s Interior, forestry licence holders are required to replant on their own. In addition, the province's Forests for Tomorrow fund was set up in 2005 to support reforestation efforts on Crown land that doesn't fall under the responsibility of a licensee.

In an email to CBC News, the ministry outlined plans to prioritize reforestation efforts in burned areas with the fund and said it may consider issuing short-term salvage licences to encourage the removal of trees worth harvesting in the wake of the fires.

"There is also varying degrees of damages to trees by wildfire, and some may still be suitable for harvesting," the email said.


Ash Kelly

Digital Producer

Ash Kelly is an associate producer for CBC Radio and online. Her CBC outdoor column, 'The Great Wide Open' focuses on nuanced stories about life outdoors. It airs province-wide every two weeks. You can find Ash and more of her stories on Twitter @AshDKelly.