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Timber deal reached to rebuild Burns Lake sawmill

Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake Jan. 20, 2012, after dry wood dust exploded and caused a fire that killed two employees and injured 20 others. A similar fatal explosion and fire struck a Prince George mill in April. - Laura Blackwell/Lakes District News
Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake Jan. 20, 2012, after dry wood dust exploded and caused a fire that killed two employees and injured 20 others. A similar fatal explosion and fire struck a Prince George mill in April.
— image credit: Laura Blackwell/Lakes District News

VICTORIA – The partners in the Burns Lake sawmill destroyed in a fatal fire in January have accepted the conditions for rebuilding the mill.

To the community's relief, the announcement comes despite last week's decision by WorkSafeBC to refer their fire investigations at Babine Forest Products in Burns Lake and a later fire at Lakeland Mills in Prince George, to Crown counsel for possible charges. Two workers died and 42 others injured in the two fires, which WorkSafeBC concluded were caused by dust explosions.

"I'm very pleased with the decision," said Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad, who joined officials in Burns Lake Tuesday for the announcement. He said it delivers on a promise made by Premier Christy Clark when she visited the community in the hours after disaster struck.

Steve Zika, CEO of Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates, and Albert Gerow, CEO of Burns Lake Native Development Corp., announced in September that they would rebuild if an agreement could be reached with the B.C. government to supply enough timber in the wake of the pine beetle epidemic.

Zika told the Lakes District News Tuesday that concrete pouring for a new pad begins this week, and construction on the new mill will be well underway by March.

Rustad chaired the committee that reviewed the timber supply and determined it could support existing mills in the region and a reconstructed Babine sawmill. It requires all six aboriginal communities in the region to commit timber rights to the new mill, including new area-based Crown forest tenures that the B.C. government has promised to award under legislation that still must be passed.

"I can imagine the other mills in the area would much rather have seen Hampton not rebuilt, because it means easier log access for them, and not as much competition," Rustad said.

The deal also depended on re-inventory of areas affected by pine beetle, after the epidemic has run its course. He said inventory work in the Quesnel forest district, which was infested earlier, has shown a better survival rate of trees and stronger regrowth than expected.

Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson disputed that conclusion, saying Rustad is overstating the results from Quesnel. Simpson said the Quesnel forest is more productive than the region to the northwest, and the optimistic projection depends on beetle-killed wood being harvested while live trees are left for later, which is not happening today.

"It's all a hyper-optimistic what-if exercise by some silviculture people," Simpson said.

The government plans to table legislation in the new year to allow area-based forest licences to be direct awarded to aboriginal communities, and supplemental licences that allow greater access to waste wood for pellets and other biofuel.

The WorkSafeBC investigation found that the most likely fuel source for the two explosions was fine, dry dust, which increases when mills cut dry trees killed by beetles. The likely ignition source in both cases was motor and gear assemblies running waste conveyors in low, confined areas of the mills subject to heavy dust accumulation.

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