The mountain pine beetle epidemic worrying Montana’s timber industry has literally turned explosive in Canada.
Extra-dry sawdust from milling beetle-killed logs is the prime suspect in two fatal British Columbia sawmill explosions this year.
Mills there now face whopping insurance rate increases, prompting at least one closure last month. And that’s on top of B.C. governmental predictions that beetle-killed timber may soon become unharvestable, eliminating upward of 14,000 jobs in the next five years.
“It makes the epidemic in Colorado and Wyoming pale in comparison,” said Bob Gray, a fire ecologist and consultant in Chilliwack, B.C. “The rush was on to log as much as they could, and they barely made a dent in it.”
Tragedy struck first at the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, where a Jan. 20 explosion killed two people. Then the Lakelands sawmill in Prince George exploded on April 23, killing two workers and injuring several more. Both mills sit about 500 miles north of Vancouver, B.C.
About 70 percent of those mills’ wood supply was beetle-kill. A WorkSafeBC investigation update on the Babine fire released May 2 focused on possible natural gas line or propane leaks – as well as sawdust – as probable causes. Fire inspectors have sent sawdust samples to a U.S. lab “for particle size and the minimum explosive concentration required to be the fuel for an explosion.”
“There were five other incidents that were not reported, and a previous incident at Burns Lake before the one that took the mill out,” Gray said. “What we’re finding with the beetle-kill is when it saws, it shatters a bit, and you get more fine particles than with green wood. So you’ve got this vertical column of particulate, and it’s dry, flammable and full of resins.”
British Columbia mills try to cut standing dead pine trees within eight to 12 years of a beetle infection. The bug epidemic got started there in the late 1990s, and the provincial government responded by increasing annual allowable cuts on public lands, hoping to harvest as much of the beetle-kill as possible before it lost value.
A government report issued in February stated some parts of the province have about five years of economical pine-beetle harvest remaining, while others are down to one and a half years’ supply.
That’s driving a proposal under consideration in the B.C. Parliament to log some of the province’s previously off-limits forests, including areas reserved for wildlife habitat or scenic beauty.
British Columbia mills expect to see a 35 percent to 50 percent reduction in timber harvest and production in the long term, according to the Canadian consulting firm International Wood Markets Group May newsletter.
The group reported 22 mills have closed in the province since 2005. And by 2018, as many as 16 of the province’s remaining 90 mills will close due to a lack of saw logs.
Others fear they won’t make it that long.
In the wake of this year’s explosions and deaths, the Flavelle sawmill in British Columbia’s Port Moody saw its insurance premium climb from $300,000 to $1.1 million. That mill closed, and others braced for coverage leaps of 100 percent to 400 percent.
“When you talk about a perfect storm, the capitalization of mills was at over-capacity to any long-term sustainable cut, where we knew the post-beetle cut would be dramatically less than pre-beetle,” said Bob Simpson, an independent B.C. Legislative Assembly member from Cariboo North, near the Prince Albert mill.
“We had a cut of 2.2 million cubic meters of timber pre-beetle, and in 2005 we saw that go up as high as 6 million for a peak. Then West Fraser (Timber Co.) built a super mill with a log diet of 1.6 million cubic meters alone in my district. But bottom line, I’m being told by foresters that the true long-term sustainable cut could be as low as 600,000 cubic meters in three to five years. With the insurance, you’re adding costs to a system with no room to add costs, with a wood supply that’s farther and farther away.”
While sawmills underpin the second-largest slice of British Columbia’s economy, the United States’ more diversified industrial sector already ran into the explosive dust issue.
“Down here, we’ve been alerted to it for several years because of explosions in other industries,” said Tony Colter of Deer Lodge’s Sun Mountain Lumber. “Places like sugar refineries that have a lot of dust have had some unbelievably tragic explosions.”
Sun Mountain has already added eight people to its workforce on cleanup detail for fine sawdust. Next month, it expects to install a new ventilation system to further whisk away explosive threats.
At Seeley Lake’s Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Gordy Sanders said the mill shares the same insurance company that increased premiums on the Canadian firm.
“They came to us in their normal rounds that same week, and we had some conversation,” Sanders said. “But we haven’t experienced huge increases like they have up north. It’s been on OSHA’s mind for some time down here.”
More kinds of trees grow in Montana forests than in their British Columbian counterparts. While western Canada has areas dominated by beetle-susceptible lodgepole pine, Montana’s forests include a wider mix of Douglas fir and spruce.
Even so, many mills in the state have seen their lodgepole inventories swamp other species. Much of that has come from Forest Service hazard-tree contracts that clear the sides of roads in heavily beetle-killed areas, Colter said. The result has been nearly 70 percent of the mill’s logs are lodgepole, and beetles killed most of that.
“It’s a drop in the bucket on any type of attempt to salvage that timber, though,” Colter said. “We’re very concerned where the Forest Service is going to direct efforts when that resource is gone.”
Timber analyst Todd Morgan at the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research said the Canadian turmoil will probably benefit U.S. mills.
“Canada has been particularly hard hit in its timber industry,” Morgan said. “And with the collapse of the U.S. housing market, their main market for lumber and other products shrank just when their need to move a lot of timber out of the woods went up.”
An expanding market in China and other parts of Asia has attracted lots of Canadian attention, further taking pressure off the U.S. domestic lumber production. That was good news for Sanders, who said it would help support lumber prices. But he warned it could have additional long-term problems for Canada.
“In Canada, where you’ve got large mills and a large investment in the workforce, you try to run whatever you can,” he said of British Columbia’s emphasis on beetle-kill harvest. “That can create additional issues, in terms of quality of products. I can understand them having some discussions about how that goes forward.”
British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly has set up a bipartisan commission to survey timber communities for ways to support the timber industry. Committee chairman John Rustad, a Liberal Party member from Nechako Lakes, said the mill explosions forced the government to speed up the tempo of that review.
“The challenge is, what strategies we can do within the province to mitigate some of that downfall,” Rustad said. “We’re putting everything on the table to look at.”
The top options include changing from a volume-based to area-based cut limit, which might allow more trees per acre to be logged. Adding fertilizer and other silviculture treatments to speed up tree growth is another. But the most controversial proposal involves opening “static preserves” of previously off-limits timber set aside for wildlife habitat or riparian protection.
“Recovery of harvested areas to their former condition will take decades or centuries depending upon the value impacted and the ecosystem involved,” the Assembly’s Mid-term Timber Supply Report said in February. “The survival and recolonization of those areas by all the former vertebrate and invertebrate species is not assured due to the long interruption of habitat supply and the shift to managed forests in the remaining forest matrix.
“Harvesting within designated land use reserves or reduction of regeneration objectives can threaten ecological values by removing more of the remaining landscape legacies. Mature and old forest supports diverse communities of species, many of which are not found in younger, managed forests.”
Simpson, the independent Assembly member, doubted the committee would produce a long-term solution by its Aug. 15 deadline.
“I’m hearing from foresters when we get into questions of land use plans, those set-asides, we’ll end up asking for forgiveness, not permission,” he said. “We’ve already done it. A lot of that has already been logged over. That timber doesn’t exist.”