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Taking the right iron to beetle wood

Using a variety of equipment, contractor Kelly King has become very adept at harvesting and building road in the typically small diameter, super-dry beetle-killed wood that is only too common in the B.C. Interior these days.

beetle wood

By Jim Stirling

Loggers throughout the British Columbia Interior daily face the realities of a warming climate.

They've long since given up relying on prolonged periods of frigid winter weather to help the flow of logs to mill yards.

Consistently higher temperatures were a major factor in the explosion of mountain pine beetle populations and the epidemic that's only now subsiding--because most of the pine is dead.

Licencees and their loggers were forced to abandon conventional log harvesting planning. First, loggers were directed to the leading edge of the beetles' march in a doomed attempt to slow it down. Then--and now--they're in the grim process of salvaging what they can and the licencees will accept from the stricken pine stands.

Kelly King has his share of climate-inspired challenges. The owner of Westpine Contractors Ltd., in Quesnel was figuring how best to access small, scattered pockets of dead pine, log them, and truck as much volume and value out to licencee West Fraser's log yard in Quesnel before the moving target of break-up shut down bush operations.

There were more than 20 of those pine parcels spread around and accessed by about 12 kilometres of road. King was obviously taking advantage of existing road systems where possible and laying out the blocks accordingly. But that was not possible in every case.

Building the roads truckers can navigate in yo-yo'ing temperatures and differing terrains requires experience and some luck from Mother Nature, says King.

Westpine gets plenty of practice, typically building 20 to 30 kilometres of road annually. Harvesting beetle killed wood in the first place introduces its own range of problems. The wood is typically small diameter, usually super-dry and prone to breaking. "You have to try and cut the trees off slower. It's a difficult tree to handle," explains King. "It comes down to being non-productive."

King was born in Quesnel into a logging family. His dad, Alf, started logging in the area in the early 1950s. Kelly King's first bush jobs were running a line skidder and bucking wood on the landings. The line skidder's pretty much a museum piece now around Quesnel, and landings are no more with the advent of the all-mechanical roadside logging system.

It was around the introduction of roadside logging, in the late 1980s, that Kelly bought out his dad and Westpine Contractors, which had been formed a couple of years earlier, became his baby. "You have to make your own decisions and there's only one person to blame for them," he says smiling.

Kelly KingKelly King (left) and foreman Brian Palik, of Westpine Contracting. Like many loggers in the B.C. Interior, Westpine has been forced to abandon conventional log harvesting planning because of the impact of the mountain pine beetle.

King's been through tough times before, although the industry's current plight is caused by more than a downturn in the U.S. housing market. At the time of writing, lumber prices were creeping up and there were other positive signs on the horizon indicating a favourable turn in the forest industry's future."But," he cautions, "it doesn't happen overnight."

Logging for West Fraser helps. Quesnel is the company's headquarters and its recently completed sawmill there is the flagship operation.

Quesnel's been far from immune to mill closures and operational disruptions but the city's diversified forest industry base has helped it weather the downturn better than some others, notes King.

But the tenor of the times and operating margins finer than a silk thread, necessitates a different attitude toward running and maintaining a log contracting business.

For example, after about three years of work, often double shifting, it was typically time to consider replacing production machinery. "Now we fix them and run them longer," King says. "But you have to fix machines properly, when they need it, the first time. Otherwise, it'll come back to haunt you."

And when it comes to updating or augmenting the equipment fleet, it can pay to look for alternate sources. For example, Ritchie Bros.' auctions are becoming the equipment dealer of choice. "There's lots of good stuff at the auctions from contractors who are selling or getting out of the business," notes King. He says the major forestry equipment manufacturers are not building much new equipment because of slumping sales. "And there's no research and development, and that's a sad thing for our industry. They can't see the forward sales."

Westpine tries to acquire whatever equipment is best for the job, adds King, and that's contributed to a mixed bag of manufacturers for the type and size of machine the company requires. The line-up includes Madill 2850s for loading and hoe chucking and two for processing with 24 inch Waratah heads. A pair of Tigercats, an 870B and C, take care of the bunching functions and a John Deere 748 and a Morgan handle the grapple skidding chores. Another couple of smaller processing machines, a John Deere 2054 and Link-Belt 2010, are equipped with 22 inch Waratahs.

Key production roadbuilding is handled by a Deere 2054 roadbuilder for the heavier ground and a Cat D6T.

Westpine is required to make multiple sorts at roadside depending on log quality and processing destinations. King has devised a pattern of sorts vertical and horizontal to roadside to help the loader operators work more efficiently.

And that's what it's all about. Finding and developing small efficiencies that together blend into a more fluid log production system. And those habits, earned through necessity, will produce further dividends as lumber markets continue to improve.

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March/April 2010

On the Cover:

Things are getting more active in millyards across the country, as lumber prices reach levels not seen in years. But harvesting the wood to get it to the sawmills--especially if it is beetle-affected timber in British Columbia--can be a challenge in itself. But it's a challenge that Westpine Contractors takes on with great skill, and the right iron. See story beginning on page 12. (Cover photo of Caterpillar 980F wheel loader in Tolko Industries' Heffley Creek sawmill by Paul MacDonald).

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