Firewood without flakes

There's an endangered species roaming the forests from Haines Junction to Whitehorse these days - the solitary and elusive independent Yukon woodcutter. 

There’s an endangered species roaming the forests from Haines Junction to Whitehorse these days – the solitary and elusive independent Yukon woodcutter.

At least that’s how Dev Hurlburt sees it. The Whitehorse entrepreneur hopes to revolutionize the firewood business in the territory, by making the small-timers obsolete.

If Hurlburt has his way, the days of waiting nervously for your “wood guy,” as your pile diminishes into kindling and bark scraps, while the thermometer drops, are over.

“In the Yukon, firewood has always been a hobby business for people,” said Hurlburt. “It was always used as a part-time, in-fill kind-of-job, everyone from the school kid to the guy who sobered up once in a while and needed some bucks… that’s just reality.”

He recalled the days when a person in need of firewood would head to a local watering hole. “The Casa Loma used to be the firewood store, you’d go in there and if anyone was sober enough to remember you, you’d get your firewood.”

A match made in heaven.

As any wood-burner knows, things go along smoothly for awhile, and then…

“Too cold, can’t work.”

Or, “Truck’s broke, can’t work.”

Or, “Too warm, can’t work.”

Or, “Had a stroke, can’t work.”

All valid excuses, sure, but these are the pitfalls of relying on a one-man operation.

“Woodcutters had a bad name, firewood had a bad name,” said Hurlburt. “People paid high prices for oil or propane or electrical because they didn’t want the hassle of waiting for firewood.”

Hurlburt’s solution? A giant supply of firewood, enough to last all year, in one place, easily accessible.

A quarter million dollars in full-size logs sits in Hurlburt’s yard in the Ibex Valley outside Whitehorse, with more arriving every day from Haines Junction. Dimok Timber and Bear Creek Logging bring the logs in, and Hurlburt and his two employees buck, split and deliver the finished product.

For Hurlburt, it’s a way to keep himself and his employees busy in the winter months. In the summer he’s selling and installing tanks, pumps, hoses and boilers, and farm equipment.

If the firewood idea takes off, he hopes to bring on a couple more workers. “If we get it up to 4,000 cords a year, that’s two more full-time jobs.”

Bringing in a processing machine from Wisconsin – a semi-portable unit that cuts to a desired length, and then splits the log – was the biggest expense outside of the logs themselves.

“It’s a huge risk, a huge investment – so it’s gotta work,” said Hurlburt. Until now, no one has had the backing to build a pile of wood this big, and even if they did it would have been nearly impossible to do so.

Restrictive short-term logging permits were the norm for many years, and debates over what to do with nearly 400,000 acres of beetle-killed forest raged between pro-development and conservationist camps.

“If you go down to B.C., they’ll give you a wood supply for 20 years,” said Hurlburt. “Here companies have fought for years to get a two-month supply.”

Things have improved, according to Hurlburt, and loggers are now permitted for three or four years, so they can finally commit to bring in the quantity that Hurlburt needs to provide his service.

Harvesting the wood is a seasonal operation. The ground in the dead-wood areas is soggy, so it needs to be frozen to get in and out. It also helps minimize tearing up the surface with vehicles.

But getting any economic benefit out of the killed wood is a race against the clock.

“As the beetle-killed wood gets older, it deteriorates – it gets punky, rotten,” he said. “The big wood is not as prime as it was 10 years ago.”

Now that he’s got a decent supply at hand, it’s time for phase two. Hurlburt puts on his salesman hat.

“I’ve learned in business that people are looking for fast, good and cheap,” he said.

They are fast: having the wood on location means an order can be processed same day, and delivered the next. “We’re too fast for some people,” laughed Hurlburt.

The product is good: “You can come and look at the wood before you buy it,” he said. “Who does that?”

Cheap? Well, economies of scale take care of that one.

Even the waste can be sold.

“We’ve got all this sawdust over here – for people who have gerbils or whatever.”

It’s better than buying a bail of straw for $10. A big bag of this would last a month.

He is still looking for a use for some of the larger scrap wood and bark.

In the end, the difference is reliability, something Hurlburt has learned in decades of business.

“I answer the phone. I’m putting my name on it.”

“I guarantee that any day in November, you can buy wood from me,” he said. “How do you do that? You’ve got it sitting in the lot.”

Contact Ian Stewart at

istewart@yukon-news.com

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