Burned Douglas-fir enters the Tolko mill in Williams Lake in for debarking.

Tolko gears up for processing wildfire timber in Williams Lake

Tolko spends more than $1 million at Soda Creek sawmill accommodating Douglas-fir

By Monica Lamb-Yorski – Williams Lake Tribune

Tolko Industries Ltd. Soda Creek Division will be on a heavier diet for the next two to three years because of the 2017 wildfires.

That’s what sawmill superintendent Todd Walters said during a recent tour of operations.

On Monday, March 25 the sawmill began processing timber salvaged from last summer’s wildfires near Williams Lake.

Normally the sawmill processes white wood such as spruce, pine and balsam or alpine fir, but now in the aftermath of the fires that has changed to 70 per cent of the feed being Douglas-fir.

The change in wood density has had a noticeable impact on the machinery, Walter said.

“We’ve had to slow our machinery down,” he noted. “It used to run at 450 to 520 board feet a minute and now our feed speeds are 390 for the dual ring debarker and 290 for the single ring.”

The dual ring was installed in December 2017 because Tolko knew the burned wood was coming.

The single ring is being upgraded for better control, with the work two-thirds completed, he added.

“We had to rewire all of our motion control centre and have been doing that work on the weekends.”

It has been a big learning curve to work with a denser log, he added.

Douglas-fir provides a much bigger log, meaning the mill has gone from processing two to four or eight-inch logs to ones that are 15 inches in diametre, which is too big for the mill.

“There’s more breakage in the equipment, so we are going with the burned timber for three weeks and then one week with the spruce, pine and balsam fir,” he explained.

Charcoal from the burned bark is dangerous and very abrasive, so it is also important to thoroughly clean the mill weekly, Walters said.

The mill has also hired two employees just to check the logs after they’ve been debarked and enter the mill to see if they need to be rejected and sent through the debarker a second time if they aren’t peeled enough.

Pointing to a pile of incoming logs with some black spots, he explained that it was not tar or charcoal but the cambium layer that has been discoloured from the heat of the fires.

“The logs like to stick together like glue and that is a challenge and so is keeping the dust level down in the mill,” he added.

Looking up toward the log yard above the mill, Walters said he has never seen that much stock there at one time, and estimated it represented 50 days of inventory with the current shift configuration.

Tolko has purchased more private burned sales that will be logged after breakup, he added.

“We will also continue to purchase wood salvaged at Sugar Cane.”

In December Tolko’s Lakeview Sawmill was devastated with a fire.

Read More: Tolko resumes rebuilding fire-damaged sawmill in Williams Lake

To accommodate 40 employees from Lakeview, Tolko added shifts to the Soda Creek sawmill.

Presently Soda Creek Division is running four 10-hour shifts from Monday to Thursday, three 12-hour shifts on the weekends from 5:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. to free up the daytime hours for maintenance.

There are presently 203 hourly employees employed there, Walters confirmed.

While he has been in the industry 40 years, Walters said this is the first time he has dealt with burned wood.

“The great news is our chip customers are happy with the quality,” he said, smiling.

“They’ve checked for carbon and there was none there.”

Tolko’s Soda Creek sawmill is located on Rottacker Road in Williams Lake.

 

An employee ensures the logs are moving properly through the mill.

An employee monitors the peeled logs and which ones will be rejected and sent back to the debarker for a second time because of charcoal spots.

Processed Douglas-fir in the Tolko Soda Creek yard has a pink tinge, which is normal, sawmill superintendent Todd Walters pointed out. Processed Douglas-fir in the Tolko Soda Creek yard has a pink tinge, which is normal, sawmill superintendent Todd Walters pointed out.

Tolko Soda Creek sawmill superintendent Todd Walters says it’s been a learning curve processing burned Douglas-fir timber salvaged from areas burned during the 2017 wildfires. Monica Lamb-Yorski photos

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