Pine beetles kill forests, builders seek to use the wood 

While the insect infestation continues, using the timber left behind is becoming easier

click to enlarge pine is fine A Brackendale company installed wood panels made from pine-beetle-infected trees at
  • pine is fine A Brackendale company installed wood panels made from pine-beetle-infected trees at

You can't miss it because the devastation runs as far as the eye can see. Driving between Merritt and Kelowna on Highway 97C in British Columbia's southern interior, it is possible to feel a kind of terrible awe while passing mile after mile of rusty-coloured, dead pine forests.

It is the work of one small insect amplified billions of times into a catastrophic infestation, a manmade situation and one of Canada's most graphic indicators of climate change, thanks to hot, dry summers and mild winters. The mountain pine beetle creates these enormous swathes of dead forest when the insects burrow into bark and outer layers of the trees, killing them.

Such forests can be found all over the province and now into Alberta and in several U.S. states.

Just this week, the scale of pine beetle outbreak was said to play a part in shaping climate change, according to University of Toronto scientists in a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

But along with the environmental impact there is an economic one. For roughly the last 15 years, since the outbreak was identified, B.C.'s forestry-driven economy has suffered from the fallout of what to do with beetle-kill wood.

Pine wood is dyed a kind of grey-blue and is softened when the beetles attack it. Only five years ago, industry believed little could be done with it apart from artistic or cosmetic uses for wood, which was being marketed as "denim pine." Traditional uses of pine, in construction and elsewhere, were considered impossible for beetle-kill wood.

Yet, the millions of impacted trees needed quick harvesting to avoid them rotting away in the wilderness and emitting CO2 gas.

In the last three years, technology has begun to find a way.

Alpine Timberframe and Design, a Brackendale company known for its custom residential and commercial work in wood, was brought in in 2011 to work on an innovative construction project at the University of British Columbia which incorporates beetle-kill wood for more than cosmetic reasons.

UBC's Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Facility, the building in question, was named this year as one of the world's top 100 most innovative and inspiring projects in KPMG's Infrastructure 100 listing. It is North America's first biomass fuelled, commercial-scale heat and power system, designed on a scale to produce energy for a small city. It opened in the spring of 2012.

The key, in terms of making beetle-kill wood usable on this scale, said Alpine Timberframe's president Richard Lutz, is cross laminated timber (CLT).

Cross laminated timber is a versatile multi-layered panel made of lumber, with layering of board cross-wise to increase rigidity and strength, similar to plywood. CLT is used as long wood spans and massive slabs, making it suitable for major construction projects.  

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