5 Jun 2019

Pigeon Valley fire aftermath: 'Biggest recovery effort ever made'

12:25 pm on 5 June 2019

One of New Zealand's largest recorded 'tree salvages' has been hailed a success in the aftermath of the Pigeon Valley fire.

Firefighters tackle fire in Moutere North Forest in north-eastern sector of fire zone near Nelson.

Firefighters tackle fire in Moutere North Forest in north-eastern sector of fire zone near Nelson. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

About 10,000 tonnes of burnt pine trees are being plucked from the ground for use in Canterbury construction projects, Nelson housing developments and to prevent future fires in Tasman.

It comes despite an initial race against time for Tasman Pine Forests, that own about 60 percent or or 14 sqkm of the fire-affected land.

After the fire was out, crews were faced with the task of extracting trees of varying ages and heights, some slightly charred at the base and others scorched to the tips, before beetles and bugs could begin to break them down.

Once out of the ground chief operating officer Steve Chandler said there were very few uses for the wood, particularly in New Zealand. Older trees that could once be used for medium density fibreboard could no longer be processed by their sister company, Nelson Pine Industries.

"Any soot or carbon actually contaminates the product. And that is the big problem domestically because local sawmills sell the external part of the log - the bark and wood chip - to the Nelson Pine Industries to make fibreboard and they can't take our brute logs because it will contaminate the process," he said.

'Nothing will go to waste'

Chief operating officer of Nelson Pine Industries Kai O Kruse said they were already facing staffing and supply challenges in the wake of the fire.

"The biggest challenge was initially the unknown - what will happen, how much has really affected the wood, tree or log resources here in the region. The fire has caused significant impacts and suffering - to the extent of suffering to the local economy," he said.

But with help from extra contractors and machinery, they began to laboriously peel each usable tree, taking what Mr O Kruse said was a "nothing will go to waste" approach.

The burnt outer parts were processed into furnace fuel and wood chips for future fire breaks, while Nelson Pine Industries began churning the unburnt wood into laminated veneer lumber (LVL).

A small portion of that LVL is being exported to China, but he said most was being used in local construction projects.

"... bigger projects in Christchurch, projects with the University of Canterbury among others, or we would have residential buildings here in Tasman region - normal residential building houses, detached houses," he said.

With the extra effort, Mr O Kruse said they were basically creating a premium quality product out of something that could have easily all been used for firewood.

"I think it is really sort of like a unique situation and perhaps the biggest recovery effort ever made."

On the ground in Pigeon Valley replanting is already underway.

Mr Chandler can't yet put a cost on the damage, but said he's confident it would be minimal, and the companies could bounce back in a matter of years.

"The complete recovery should be done over a three year period. In some of the areas within the fire zone, some of the trees haven't been burned that badly, and we're actually leaving them behind in the meantime, and just reviewing them. It may be that some will survive and we can just keep them growing on for a year or two until they get to a better age. So it's not all bad news," he said.

But, he said with global warming and more frequent hot, dry spells of weather, a lot of thought was also going into precautionary measures.

"In Nelson, there's always the risk of something like this happening again. We're trying to do everything possible to make people aware of risk and type preventative measures to stop anything happening, ever again."

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