The Great Woodchip Fire of 2023 … what now?

November 2, 2023
2nd October … smoke plume visible for miles around.

It has been dubbed ‘the Great Woodchip Fire of 2023’. It destroyed 200 000 tons of woodchips at NCT’s Richards Bay facility, severely damaged infrastructure and will leave a big hole in the forestry and wood processing value chains. But South Africans are a tenacious bunch, and as soon as the smoke had cleared the hard work of mopping up, assessing the damage and planning the repair and rebuild began. The optimistic expectation is that the timber at the NCT facility will be flowing on one chipping line within eight months, and business will be back to normal production within a year to 14 months.

Chip pile fires are notorious for their ferocity – especially when fanned by hot, gale-force winds – and they are always very hard to extinguish. And so it turned out at NCT’s chipping and export facility in Richards Bay when a fire broke out on a chip pile on the last day of September, and raged for 10 days straight, consuming two massive chip piles and threatening to spread to neighbouring businesses and suburbs. Fire fighters from far and wide, local businesses and the people of Richards Bay rallied around and finally extinguished the blaze on October 12.

NCT general manager Danny Knoesen and his team have spent the past few weeks tirelessly shuttling between the fire ground zero, the post-fire mop-up and rebuild war room, member tree farmers and NCT customers on the other side of the world to keep everyone informed, on board and to come up with alternative arrangements to mitigate the disruption to business that the fire has wrought.

2nd October … burning through the night.

According to current estimates it will take around eight months to get one chipping line going, while the team is considering the possibility of getting temporary chipping capacity in place even sooner. Current estimate is that the facility could get back to normal production levels in a year to 14 months. NCT’s plan pre-fire was to build a third chipping line by 2025, and this is still on the cards.

Good news

The good news is that the fire has been completely extinguished, and nobody lost their lives or their homes despite the highly dangerous conditions faced by NCT staff, firefighters, neighbouring businesses and local inhabitants.

The not-such-good news is that 200 000 tons of woodchips and round logs – i.e. all of the stock that was in the NCT yard at the time of the fire – has been destroyed or so badly damaged as to be worthless. There is also extensive damage to infrastructure including conveyers and gantries on both the wattle and Eucalyptus chip lines. It is nothing short of a multi-billion rand catastrophe.

4th October … fire still going strong.

NCT has declared ‘force majeure’ with three large export customers in China and Japan, and has already met with them to explain the circumstances and try find a way to mitigate the disruption to their businesses until NCT can get back to the business of supplying them with chips. Force majeure is a clause that is included in contracts to remove liability for unforeseen and unavoidable catastrophes that interrupt the expected course of events and prevent participants from fulfilling their obligations in terms of the contract.

Impact on NCT member tree farmers

Then there is the inevitable slow down in timber flowing from NCT’s 2 000 member tree farmers who supply the co-op with their raw material, whose cashflow will be severely dented as a result of the fire. This will have a ripple effect, impacting on contractors and other suppliers who feed goods and services into this forestry value chain.

Danny admitted that the tree farmers are in a difficult situation as a result of the loss of stock and damage to the export facility, but the NCT team is hard at work to find ways to mitigate the impacts on them.

4th October … both chip piles burning.

“The wattle growers need to be able to harvest so the bark can be stripped and passed on to the bark factories at UCL and NTE, so we are by and large encouraging wattle members to continue to harvest, and to hold their timber stock in depot. We will add a few more ships to our Durban operation to try to mitigate the lack of wattle business for the upcoming season, and we think that TWK will do the same. So we could try and capture about 90% of the wattle season.

“On the euc side we will chase domestic markets to see what we can do to try and improve the euc offtake from our members – but that is going to be a challenge, especially for our smaller growers. We are looking at ways to mitigate that, but we don’t have all the answers yet,” said Danny.

As to the longer term impacts on the business, Danny believes they will not lose any of their regular customers as the demand for NCT’s woodchips will continue to be strong.

“We know our export customers will wait for us. We are an important cog in their wheel and NCT is a vital supplier to the pulp and paper sector in Asia, and once our facility is up and running we hope to get back to business as normal,” he said.

A commitment has been made by NCT to retain all their staff, who will be re-focused on recovery and rebuilding efforts. NCT employs 700 people.

7th October … excavators spreading and cooling the chip pile. Conveyor system damage visible.

Containing the fire

Another piece of good news: the fire didn’t spread to the chip pile at the TWK woodchip export facility situated right next door to NCT despite numerous incidents of spotting which were quickly extinguished. Nor did it spread to Foskor, a major manufacturer of fertilizers, located behind TWK. Foskor has stockpiles of sulphur and ammonia housed in their yard that are used in their manufacturing process, which could have caused extensive damage had they caught fire. Sulphur is highly toxic, and ammonia is like gunpowder.

More good news: despite the fact that at the height of the inferno burning debris was being blown by gale-force winds across the John Ross highway and igniting the brush and threatening nearby houses, these flare-ups were contained by firefighters from the municipality and local businesses as well as local residents armed with buckets of water and makeshift fire beaters.

7th October … nearly there.

Fish kill

Not-such-good-news: fish were reported to have washed up dead in a canal close to the NCT yard that is connected to the sea, possibly as a result of the water used in the firefighting activities that entered the storm water system which discharged into the canal. NCT has been issued with an environmental directive by the environmental authorities and they are responding to that directive. In the meanwhile NCT has called in Ground Truth, a multi-disciplinary consulting company with a specialist focus on issues surrounding water resources, biodiversity and environmental engineering, to help evaluate the causes of the fish die-off and limit the damage.

“We suspect at this stage that it was dissolved oxygen deficiency in the water, but we will wait for the results of the tests,” said Danny.

So what caused the fire in the first place?

Progress of the fire

Apparently it started under a conveyer system on the side of a chip pile that was not running at the time and had not been in production for 10 days prior to the start of the fire. The NCT team believe that it was not caused by equipment or the conveyor, it was not an accident and it was not arson and it was not caused by human intervention, and it was not internal combustion as it started on the outside of the chip pile. So at this stage it is a bit of a mystery.

In the meanwhile a thorough investigation into the cause of the fire is on-going, and hopefully it will come up with answers.

But what we do know is that a small wisp of smoke at the chip pile was first detected at 12.44 pm on Saturday 30 September. Within 10 minutes the NCT fire crew was on the scene under the command of NCT Operations Manager Ryno Martin.

Weather conditions at the time were hot, dry and windy. Despite the fact that the chips have a 30% moisture content, the fire, which started quite small, spread rapidly.

A second proto team arrived soon after with extra equipment. According to reports it looked like the firefighters may be able to contain the blaze, but at 4.45 pm the wind suddenly switched around from north east to south west, blowing at around 50 km/hour. This overpowered the good work that had been done and the fire got away.

Aerial water bombers despatched by the Zululand FPA were unable to attack the fire due to the dangerous conditions.

By 11 pm that night the second NCT chip pile was ablaze, and by Sunday morning the scene was like ‘hell on earth’ with the smoke plume visible for miles.

Additional fire fighting resources from all over started arriving during the day including from uMhlathuze Municipality, Transnet, Mondi, South32 and Sappi to assist the now exhausted NCT fire fighters. Fixed wing fire fighting aircraft from the Zululand FPA and the KZN FPA based in Howick as well as helicopters from Working on Fire and specialised units from ADT joined the fray.

Due to the heat of the fire and the weather conditions they were unable to contain the main blaze, and the focus shifted to preventing the nearby TWK chip pile from catching fire and setting off another chain of destructive fire events.

8th October … mopping up.

Under control

By 9th October the fire was under control and excavators were deployed to spread out the chip piles, further cooling the blaze. By the morning of the 10th October, the fire was finally extinguished.

The manner in which local people and businesses and authorities all came together during the crisis to assist and support the fire fighting effort was quite remarkable, and has not gone unnoticed. NCT sponsored an entire supplement in the local newspaper to thank everybody for their good will and their support during the fire.

Now it’s all hands on deck to get back to business, and to rebuild the facility - with enhanced fire fighting capacity. Many hard lessons have been learned from the Great Woodchip Fire of 2023, and hopefully these will prevent future fire catastrophes.

NCT General Manager Danny Knoesen (pictured) and his staff have got a big job on their hands to get NCT back to business as usual.

*All fire photos by Neels Reyneke

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