When a natural disturbance hits Alberta’s timber supply — like forest fires — forestry companies may decide it’s still economically worthwhile to go and salvage the burned trees.
There’s a small window of about two years to harvest, before the wood fiber twists, cracks and rots, making it economically worthless.
Since 2016, Alberta has harvested approximately 20 million cubic metres of timber each year, which is enough to fill 8,000 Olympic swimming pools, but the proportion of that from salvaged logging can vary, according to data from the Alberta government.
Some years, fire-killed trees make up less than one per cent of the total harvest, but some years it’s substantially more. Between May 2019 to April 2020, fire-killed trees were almost 20 per cent of the total harvest.
The reason it varies is due to economics, said Ken Greenway, executive director of Forest Stewardship and Trade with the Ministry of Forestry and Parks.
It can depend on whether the burned wood is easily accessible or if there’s a high price for lumber.
“The biggest thing is what kind of wood burned,” he said.
“It may have never been harvestable, so it may never have been salvageable.”
While cutting through the char can damage equipment, there are economic benefits for companies, such as less government royalties.
“It’s explicit recognition that there’s extra costs to harvesting burned timber and potentially a lower product value,” said Greenway.
Radio Active7:54A different type of logging
The intensity of the burn also impacts what the wood can be used for. In most cases, using it for pulp can be tricky, as char can contaminate it, said Aspen Dudzic, director of communications at the Alberta Forest Products Association.
While fire-killed timber is not always top quality, Dudzic said it’s great for smaller projects, like fence posts and garden boxes.
It’s also frequently used for wood pellet products and biomass to energy opportunities, said Dudzic.
Another type of salvaged wood
Harvesting timber from pine beetle killed trees also makes up a proportion of the total wood harvest each year.
Since 2016, it’s made up less than four per cent, each year in Alberta.
But it’s much more common in B.C., where in 2016, pine beetle killed trees made up 30 per cent of the total timber harvest.
It’s decreased since then to less than 12 per cent in 2022 as the total number of pine beetle killed trees has decreased in B.C.
What climate change could mean for logging
This year was unprecedented for forest fires, with more than 2 million hectares burned in Alberta.
The amount of trees that burned, far outstrips industry’s capacity to salvage log what’s available, said Greenway.
“What that means is that there is a glut of burnt timber,” he said.
“If this happened more routinely. We would have a problem keeping up with salvage for sure.”
With climate change, more forest fires are expected in the future. It”s probable salvaging fire-killed trees will make up a larger portion of total timber harvest, said Greenway.
“We’re probably going to be having more burned areas and therefore we’re going to have to increase the ability to salvage more.”
The Alberta government is looking at more salvage opportunities, like increasing wood pellet manufacturing, according to Greenway.
“There may be greater opportunity to support non traditional forest products.”
With climate change, it’s important that forest companies start to focus more on salvaged wood, said Brad Pinno, an associate professor of silvaculture at the University of Alberta.
“Maybe we have to accept higher logging costs, more challenges in the mills, things like that,” he said.
While it can be difficult to predict forest fires, better planning to include more burned timber could be right up the forest industry’s tree.
“We take an incredibly long term view of our forests, I would argue more than any other industry,” said Dudzic.
“It’s not new for our industry to have to adapt and revisit those plans. Fire salvage is just one piece of that puzzle.”