Massive fires increase wood prices

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By Don C. Brunell

Massive forest fires in western parts of Canada and the U.S. are not only choking us with layers of smoke, but are cutting off lumber supplies around our country.

The result is the cost of a new home is rising because of the growing shortage of framing lumber and laminated decking.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported the combination of the wildfires and the 30 percent tariff President Trump slapped on Canadian lumber producers are causing lumber shortages and drove up the average prices on new single-family homes nationwide to $406,400 in May.

“More than a half-dozen lumber mills, which produce about 14 percent of the province’s (British Columbia) timber and 3 percent of North American output, according to industry newsletter ‘Random Lengths’ have closed. Forest fires haven’t affected prices so dramatically since 2003, said Jon Anderson, the newsletter’s publisher,” WSJ stated.

In terms of public health, calculations by researchers at Canada’s National Forest Carbon Accounting System, indicated that last year’s mammoth fire which evacuated Fort McMurray released the equivalent of 5 percent of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions or 41 million tons.

Massive forest fires have been around for centuries in western parts of the U.S. and Canada. For thousands of years, semi-arid forests, which stretch the length of western U.S. and Canada’s interior, have operated on a cycle of growth, fire and regrowth.

Huge fires are part of Washington’s Cascade Range history as well. For example, in a single week in September 1902, the Yacolt Burn engulfed more than a half-million acres and killed 56 people in the Columbia River Gorge and around Mt. St. Helens.

The choking smoke was so thick that ships on the Columbia River were forced to navigate by compass. The street lights in Seattle, 160 miles to the north, glowed at noon.

The Yacolt fires actually forced Weyerhaeuser into lumber milling, particularly in the Longview area where it built a massive forest products processing complex. The company needed to find a way to recover as much value from its charred trees as possible. That complex also processed salvageable trees from its Mt. St. Helens tree farm following the 1980 volcanic eruption.

Logging burned over acres of public lands makes sense. A 2015 U.S. Forest Service study of federal forests in the Wenatchee area found that large wildfires can leave behind thousands of acres of fire-killed trees that eventually become fuels for future fires.

In the past logging fire-damaged forests was viewed only for recovery of their economic worth. Now they have a fire prevention value.

Salvage logging was part of President George W. Bush’s proposed “Healthy Forests” initiative 15 years ago, but critics viewed the program as just a way to increase logging in public forests and killed it.

Bush’s plan called for removing dead and diseased trees before they could fuel large wildfires. Those fires cost hundreds of millions to suppress. (At the time, huge fires in the Wenatchee-Lake Chelan area were fresh on people’s minds.)

Logging, milling and replanting logged land with young trees would create thousands of jobs and add to our nation’s timber supply. It is a way to maintain a healthy growing forest that stores carbon and emits oxygen.

The bottom line is clearing dead trees and debris from the forest floor reduces some of the risk of massive wildfires that pump millions of tons of CO2 into our air.

Global warming seems to be accelerating the number of wildfires across the planet. Those fires are public health threats. Robbing them of their fuel makes sense. So does making lumber more plentiful and affordable.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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