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A helicopter carries a water bucket over a burnt out area just outside of Kelowna, B.C., on Aug. 28, 2017. An estimated 53 million cubic metres of timber has been caught up in wildfires since the start of the summer.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia's wildfires, still not fully under control, have already scorched the equivalent of the entire year's timber harvest in the province's Interior.

The state of emergency was lifted over the past weekend, but uncertainty remains for industry, workers and communities as the province begins to assess where it will find the timber to keep forestry mills running.

"What's important for people as they come back to their homes and they want life to get back to normal, they want to go back to work and for many, that means coming back to work in our mills," said Susan Yurkovich, president of the Council of Forest Industries.

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"We are glad the state of emergency is over because that was hugely distressful for folks who live in and around these communities, and we are also fortunate that we didn't have any mill infrastructure impacted. But we need to make sure there is fibre getting to the mills so we can continue to employ people in the regions that were hard hit."

An estimated 53 million cubic metres of timber has been caught up in wildfires since the start of the summer.

That is roughly the amount of timber that was available to industry for harvest this year in the Interior – a region that is already struggling due to the devastation of the mountain pine beetle infestation. At the same time, the forest industry is in the midst of renewed trade war with the United States over its softwood-lumber exports.

"Forestry in British Columbia is in transition and these wildfires have compounded that, especially in the Interior where the mountain pine beetle wood is starting to run out," said Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Doug Donaldson.

The rookie minister has been meeting with the industry to fast-track new cutting permits as well as salvage licences. With about 150 fires still burning at last count, however, it will be months at least before a clear picture of the losses – and alternatives – emerges.

"Now that the orders have been lifted and the smoke is clearing, we are getting in there to see how much of that 53 million cubic metres is salvageable," Mr. Donaldson said in an interview.

"Not all of that timber is lost, but there is no doubt going to be an impact from the fires on the wood supply."

This wildfire season saw more hectares of land burned than at any other time in the province's recorded history.

Mr. Donaldson noted that the provincial budget tabled earlier this month includes $140-million for reforestation over the next three years, and that will provide some additional forestry employment. However, the demand for replanting trees was already there due to the mountain pine beetle epidemic, which has killed half of the total volume of commercial lodgepole pine in the province since the beetle infestation began in the 1990s.

In a rush to harvest the dead and dying timber before all economic value was lost, the province's Interior forest industry embarked on an unprecedented and unsustainable salvage operation, but that wood supply is almost gone, leading to a contraction of both jobs and mill capacity in recent years.

Insecurity is also driven by the current softwood-lumber dispute, which the provincial government describes as the the greatest threat today to B.C.'s economy. (The softwood industry is worth $4.6-billion to the province annually, and B.C. produces 60 per cent of Canada's exports to the United States.)

Still, Mr. Donaldson said there is reason for optimism: "We still have lots of viable mills and we have people with great ideas for new processes, so there are lots of positives for the forestry industry," he said. "It is in transition, but it has a bright future."

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