Fires, Heat, Stymie Plum Creek

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – The sharp shrill of timber on metal is music to the ears of executives and employees at Plum Creek Timber Company. This summer’s red-hot fire season has them poised to endure an even more piercing sound: production coming to a screeching halt.

The timber company is already anticipating one temporary closure, and if the fire season continues as predicted, another is on the way. Last week, Plum Creek officials told employees at the company’s Ksanka Mill, located at Fortine just south of Eureka, the mill is expected to run out of logs the week of Aug. 20. If wildfires continue to scorch Plum Creek’s timber lands, the plywood mill in Columbia Falls could see a similar temporary stoppage near the first week of September.

Tom Ray, general manager of Plum Creek’s northwest region, suspended all logging on Plum Creek Lands in Montana earlier this month.

“It is hot all across Montana,” Ray said. “(Shutting down logging operations) was the prudent thing for our contractors and our resources.”

The stoppage greatly reduced the amount of timber Plum Creek receives. Upwards of 270 truckloads of logs are dropped off on a typical day. Since suspending logging, the numbers of truckloads unloaded daily has dropped to less than 20. And they continue to dwindle. The supply reduction is forcing the mills to process the stockpiled timber they have on hand; when the stockpile runs out, the mills have to shut down.

“It is a temporary closing of the mill – weather related,” Henry Brown, Plum Creek’s human resource director, said. “When the log supply opens back up we will obviously open the mill back up.”

According to Plum Creek officials, these anticipated closures should only have an immediate affect on Plum Creek’s two sawmills. The company’s fiber board mills will continue to operate through the supply reduction because they depend primarily on wood chips and sawdust, not whole timber. When Plum Creek is forced to “curtail operations” at one of its mills, it means, even if only temporary, that the mills’ employees are out of work.

“When things like this occur we want to make this transition as painless as possible,” Brown said. “We provide them with as much information as possible and explain to them all of their options.”

Those options include employees either using their vacation time during the stoppage or filing for unemployment. A total of 95 employees will be affected by the Fortine closure. If the Columbia Falls plywood mill is forced to close as well, its 130 employees will also be jobless – at least as long as the fires continue.

Plum Creek has 1,435 employees in Montana, nearly two-thirds of the company’s entire workforce. A similar work stoppage hit the timber company during the wildfires of 2003. However, this fire season started earlier than usual.

“We had slower fire seasons the last few years,” Ray said. “This year is stepping up.”

Temporary shutdowns aren’t the only way wildfires hurt Plum Creek. The company must also account for the amount of resources lost when a fire destroys its trees. Ray said Plum Creek officials haven’t been able to accurately assess the amount of resources lost because the fires are not yet fully contained.

There are four fires directly affecting its timberlands, with the Chippy Creek fire west of Kalispell and the Jocko Lakes fire near Seeley Lake blazing across the largest amounts of acreage. The company is assessing the fire danger on a day-to-day basis, but with wildfire experts predicting this year’s fire season lasting well into September, Plum Creek is preparing itself and its employees for the projected shutdowns.

“We can’t control the fact that we don’t have any logs,” Brown said. “When our supply is available they will be back to work.”

Other than that, Ray can’t do much but wait for better weather.

“A nice rainstorm could come along and we could get back to work,” he said.

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