Mill employees get some time off, due to wood shortage

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Word around town last week was that West Fraser’s Mitsue veneer mill was taking down time due to a shortage of logs. This was confirmed by the company on Friday, by way of an email from its Vancouver HQ.

The problem, apparently, is the giant McMillan Complex of wildfires, northwest of Slave Lake. It was declared ‘under control’ on July 1, but until then companies were “locked out,” as Ken Vanderwell of Vanderwell Contractors put it.

For a month or more they hadn’t been able to get in there to retrieve stockpiled wood, because it was unsafe to do so. A Forestry spokesperson said on Friday that situation is now over.

Tara Knight of West Fraser says the Slave Lake veneer mill (aka Alberta Plywood), “is temporarily suspending production this month to provide time to build up the exceptionally low log inventory.”

Why the same situation isn’t affecting the Vanderwell sawmill has to do with the log haul policy. Ken Vanderwell credits a custom started by the late Bob Vanderwell – of “get it into the yard.” It’s more expensive to do it that way, Vanderwell says, but safer, as this year’s fires have shown.

Companies that have been storing logs in the bush, so as to spread the haul to the mill out over the entire year, have been caught without enough wood in the yards.

“They lost some of the stock in the bush,” Vanderwell said, “and some can’t get in there to haul it.”

As for the general impact of the fires to wood supply, Vanderwell said a five per cent reduction in annual allowable cut is anticipated for his company. Numbers for the other mills were not available.

Tolko’s big OSB mill is okay as far as wood supply goes, says woodlands manager Allan Bell. However, the market for OSB sheeting is pretty lousy at the moment, and that could bode ill for the mill’s continued operation if things don’t improve. A glance at prices (from the online industry publication Random Lengths) shows a price for 7/16 OSB panelboard at less than half of what it was a year ago. Other mills in B.C. have cut back. But that’s another story.

Vanderwell says annual operating plans are being switched over from harvesting green wood to fire-killed timber. Sawmills can handle that sort of wood easier than the veneer or pulp mill can. The pulp process can’t deal with black stuff, so the process usually results in less of the fire-killed trees being used.

Vanderwell said the market for lumber these days is decent; helping to make it so is the cost of doing business in B.C. is so much higher.

Stumpage (the price a company pays per tree to the government) is so high in that province that mills have just stopped producing.

“Almost a billion board feet came off the market,” as a result, Vanderwell said, and Alberta producers are able to take up some of the slack.

“The wood has got to come from somewhere,” he said. “It’s a matter of supply and demand.”

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