Wes Hunt figured he had worked his last shift at Boise Cascade's Medford Plywood plant along Highway 99.

Wes Hunt figured he had worked his last shift at Boise Cascade's Medford Plywood plant along Highway 99.

Signing on as a seasonal mill hand at 18, he worked six summers before catching on full time in 2007.

"It was my first real job, and I was working with older people," said the 29-year-old Crater High School graduate.

It was a steady paycheck until the prolonged housing slump and financial hard times led Boise to cut its staff Oct. 1. Hunt voluntarily left with a handful of co-workers who were laid off. He even started preparing for a move into the culinary field before a surprise telephone call came two weeks ago, informing him he and eight others were called back to work.

"I was excited to come back and see everyone," Hunt said. "There were others on unemployment for a long time, and they need insurance for their families."

Boise Cascade announced Tuesday it is adding 40 positions to its Western Oregon Region mills in Medford, White City and Willamina, boosting morale throughout the local plant.

"I think people are feeling better, knowing orders are coming in," said John Scales, who lost his job in 2008 when Boise shuttered its plywood plant in White City and rejoined the company last year. "With orders coming in, there's not much uncertainty for the short term and we're hoping for more orders in the long term.

"It means we'll probably be working steady and I'll be getting 40 hours in every week. You want to have income so you can pay the bills."

Boise Cascade spokesman R.J. Roberts said the Idaho-based wood products firm has increased market share for its plywood and engineered wood panels both in domestic and Canadian markets, creating a need for greater dryer capacity to meet expanded production schedules.

The new hires will boost Boise's regional employee count to 580.

"The current markets for our wood products, and the recent upturn in demand for the products we make using the veneer produced in our mills, have necessitated this hiring," Roberts said.

Two events far from the Rogue Valley played a pivotal role in the Boise announcement. Georgia-Pacific closed two Southern pine plywood plants, putting 700 employees in Crossett, Ark., and 400 employees in Hawthorne, Fla., out of work in November. Then Latin American panel maker Celulosa Arauco saw its plant reduced to ashes early this month by wildfires in Nueva Aldea, Chile. The fire displaced 660 workers and it will take two years to rebuild the mill, officials said.

"When Georgia-Pacific closed its plants, it created a phenomena where the Southern pine market tightened up because of production shortages," said Tim Cochran, associate editor at Eugene-based Random Lengths, a wood products industry journal.

"People in Southern California, for example, used to buying Southern pine, were all of a sudden seeing prices going up and started looking to the north. Fir plywood is more attractive now, and Boise is particularly keyed into servicing that market. Murphy Plywood (in Rogue River) is expanding to capitalize on this, too."

The Western Fir Plywood Composite price rose to $507 per 1,000 square feet last week from $470 on Dec. 30. During that two-week span, the Southern Pine Plywood Composite jumped to $505 from $456, while the broader Structural Panel Composite price rose to $329 last week from $305.

"The Georgia-Pacific mills were pretty big," Cochran said. "Boise and Murphy won't completely fill that void. Presumably, there will be other Southern pine mills that will ramp up a bit. There are other mills on the verge of taking a few weeks off, or worse, and now the market is all of a sudden good."

Roberts acknowledged Boise's gains, including new contracts with Home Depot and some Canadian companies, came at the expense of competitors.

"Housing starts are stagnant at best," he said. "We're just hoping the bleeding stops soon."

Roberts said Boise Cascade received 700 applications during a three-day job fair earlier this month, and interviews to fill the new positions will continue through Feb. 3.

"We've been planning on hiring these people," Roberts said. "To start up one shift leads to (more work elsewhere). We're anticipating more business for engineered wood products, which means we make more plywood and when we make more plywood, we need more veneer."

Plant Superintendent Kevin Moore said operations will move from 24 hours five days a week to 24/7.

"We've been in a curtailed state since we hit our peak five years ago," Moore said. "We had to throttle back. Now we're going to kick it in and go."

The ripple effect of Boise's increased production extends beyond its own payroll.

Troy Hutchens, operations vice president at F.V. Martin Trucking in White City, said more activity at Boise means more work for his trucks and drivers, shuttling raw materials between plants and delivering finished product to distribution sites in the Northwest, including Seattle.

"It will be much easier when our drivers are delivering beams to Seattle to get veneer loads for those trucks out of Willamina," Hutchens said.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email business@mailtribune.com.