Spokane Journal of Business

Guest Commentary: Massive fires boosting wood prices


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Massive forest fires in western parts of Canada and the U.S. aren’t 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 reported the combination of the wildfires and a 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 (British Columbia) province’s 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.

Massive forest fires have been around for centuries in western parts of the U.S. and Canada. For thousands of years, semi-arid forests that 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 Mount St. Helens. 

The choking smoke was so thick that ships on the Columbia River were forced to navigate by compass and 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.  

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 of dollars to suppress. (At the time, huge fires in the Wenatchee-Lake Chelan area were fresh on people’s minds).

The logging, milling, and replanting of fire-damaged areas with young trees would create thousands of jobs and add to our nation’s timber supply. 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, a business analyst and columnist who lives in Vancouver, is the retired president of the Association of  Washington Business.  He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com

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