Mercer Forestry Services: Resource Responsibility

In 2023, Canada faced an unprecedented wildfire season, significantly impacting its forests. Amidst this environmental challenge, Mercer Forestry Services (MFS), located in Lumby, British Columbia, provides a much-needed service related to wood harvesting and the sustainable utilization of fire-damaged wood.

Under the leadership of General Manager Marty Hiemstra, Mercer Forestry Services conducts annual harvesting operations alongside an experienced team and contractors. These operations include the annual harvesting of approximately 300,000 cubic meters of timber, of which approximately 25% has been wildfire salvage over the past two years.

Responsible forestry includes making the best of large natural disturbances such as wildfires. These calamities can be turned into opportunities,” says MFS General Manager Marty Hiemstra.

The initiation of fire-damaged wood harvesting with Mercer Forestry Services commenced in the spring of 2022 due to escalating interior BC fires in preceding years. These projects took place on Crown and Indigenous lands and involved partnerships with multiple stakeholders.

Understanding the Unprecedented 2023 Wildfire Season

The wildfire season in Canada in 2023 has left an indelible mark on the nation’s environmental landscape, stirring unprecedented concern among wildland fire experts. Notably, Canada’s wildfires have taken center stage, and according to EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, contributing a remarkable 25% of the global carbon emissions with 290 megatonnes of carbon, doubling a previous annual record. Emissions are set to rise to reach nearly 410 megatonnes, starkly contrasting the previous record of 138 megatonnes recorded in 2014. Satellite monitoring of emissions began in 2003.

The scale of devastation is equally staggering, with over 42 million acres of Canadian forests succumbing to the relentless flames. This figure surpasses the previous records by more than twofold. This year’s wildfire season was also the worst on record for area burned, with about 131,000 square kilometres¹ (50,579 square miles) already scorched across eastern and western Canada. According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, that’s about the size of Greece and greater than the combined area burned in 2016, 2019, 2020 and 2022.

These sobering statistics underscore the impact on Canada’s forests and emphasize the pressing need for responsible salvage operations in the areas ravaged by these fires.



Environmental Benefits of Harvesting Fire-Damaged Wood

Amidst the challenges posed by wildfires, the practice of harvesting fire-damaged wood offers a range of significant environmental benefits:

Forest Regeneration: Harvesting fire-damaged wood plays a pivotal role in jumpstarting the process of forest regeneration. By planting new seedlings where the dead trees are removed, natural recovery of forest ecosystems will occur faster.

Carbon Sequestration: If left untouched, fire-damaged wood can release carbon into the atmosphere as it decomposes. However, when harvested and utilized sustainably, this wood can effectively sequester carbon for an extended period, contributing to carbon mitigation efforts.

Wildlife Habitat Enhancement: Thoughtful fire-damaged wood harvesting can create diverse habitats for wildlife. Removing trees allows for increased sunlight penetration, encouraging the growth of understory vegetation that benefits various animal species.

Soil Stabilization: Post-wildfire, soil erosion becomes a concern. Harvesting fire-damaged wood and prompt regeneration can stabilize the soil, preventing erosion and preserving water quality.

Resource Recovery: If left unutilized, fire-damaged wood represents a lost resource. By salvaging and repurposing this wood for uses such as lumber, pulp, or biomass, we maximize its value and reduce the need to harvest healthy, mature trees.

Biodiversity Promotion: Managed harvesting creates a mosaic of different-aged trees and habitats within a forest, supporting a more comprehensive range of plant and animal species. This enhances overall biodiversity and ecological resilience.

Firebreak Creation: Strategic removal of fire-damaged wood can create natural firebreaks, helping contain and control future wildfires, thus protecting adjacent lands and communities.

Long-Term Sustainability: Responsible fire-damaged wood harvesting, combined with reforestation efforts, ensures the long-term sustainability of forests. It secures the continued provision of ecological, economic, and social benefits for future generations.

These environmental benefits underscore the importance of responsible fire-damaged wood harvesting as a crucial element in restoring and preserving our forested landscapes.

Time to Harvest: A Critical Window

In the aftermath of a wildfire, fire-damaged wood is constantly in flux. To maximize its value and utility, swift action is imperative, as the longer the wood remains exposed to the elements, the greater the risk of deterioration and loss of structural integrity.

Within a certain timeframe, typically measured in months, Mercer Forestry Services mobilizes its team to assess, salvage, and transport fire-damaged wood to processing facilities. Timely salvage operations preserve the wood’s value and contribute to the broader ecological recovery efforts.

Assessing Quality for the Utilization of Fire-Damaged Wood

Mercer Forestry Services thoroughly evaluates the fire-damaged wood to determine its suitability for internal and external customers, including pulp production at their Mercer Celgar mill in Castlegar, BC. 

Severely burned or charred wood may not be viable for their customer’s purpose. As in the pulp mill case, the company prioritizes wood that retains enough cellulose fibres for manufacturing their softwood pulp.

Considerations and Challenges in Fire-Damaged Wood Harvesting

While the harvesting and utilization of fire-damaged wood offer several advantages, there are also a number of considerations and challenges that must be understood:

  • Safety Risks: Working in fire-damaged forests can pose significant safety risks to personnel. Hazardous conditions, such as unstable trees and weakened soil, require stringent safety protocols and training.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Obtaining the necessary permits and approvals for any type of harvesting can be time-consuming and complex; however, compliance with environmental regulations and guidelines is essential.
  • Variable Wood Quality: Fire-damaged wood varies in quality, with some portions being suitable for specific applications (e.g., pulp, lumber, or biomass) while others may only be fit for disposal. Sorting and processing require careful consideration to maximize value.
  • Transportation Challenges: Transporting logs to processing facilities can present logistical challenges. Road conditions, distances, and infrastructure limitations can impact transportation costs.
  • Environmental Impact: Even though fire-damaged wood harvesting can aid in ecological recovery, it must be conducted with minimal negative environmental impact. Soil erosion, water quality, and wildlife habitats are carefully considered and mitigated.
  • Rehabilitation Costs: Investing in post-harvest rehabilitation and reforestation efforts can be a long-term financial commitment. Companies need to allocate resources for these activities.

Conclusion: A Collective Responsibility

The story of fires, resource responsibility, and salvaging burnt wood is not merely a narrative of challenges and statistics; it is a testament to the resilience and determination of those who understand the intricate balance between human needs and environmental preservation. Through collaborative efforts, industry expertise, and a commitment to the environment, we can strive to mitigate the impact of wildfires and ensure a more sustainable future for our forests.