In acknowledgment of the six month anniversary of the Babine Forest Products tragedy, Pat Bell, Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation provided an update on recovery efforts to date in Burns Lake.
“We have been giving regular updates but think that it is important to recognize that it has been six months since the tragic explosion and fire that resulted in the deaths of men and the injury of 44 others,” Bell said.
He said the province, the Village of Burns Lake and local area First Nations have been jointly focussed on expanding the town’s infrastructure and helping with the physiological needs of the community following the tragedy.
“It’s a small town so almost everyone either knew someone who was injured or who passed away,” he said.
According to Bell the province accelerated a number of projects to help get Burns Lake back on its feet and he said that $17.4 million in funding has been applied to economic development initiatives including the Village of Burns Lake’s downtown revitalization plans and the Tom Forsyth Memorial Arena expansion project.
“The recreation centre [arena] expansion will help people in Burns Lake cope with any psychological issues following the tragedy by providing an outlet for wall climbing and a children’s play area …. it will be an area for healthy activity,” Bell said.
Bell said to date, 93 displaced Babine Forest Products employees have found new jobs.
“This number is down from a few months ago, primarily because there was recent layoffs at Endako Mine,” he said.
According to Bell, 23 people are still currently employed by Babine Forest Products, while 44 of the company’s employees are currently collecting either disability or workers compensation payments.
“There is 100 people still displaced and that is a real concern.”
Bell said he is not happy with the current employment numbers “That remains as a real concern for me, so I have asked our team to go back and look at what we need to do, perhaps host another job fair, or working with the local community, a one on one with individuals in the region, it’s important we do that. The people in Burns Lake certainly deserve the very best that we can provide.”
Bell said he was pleased with the Economic Development Association of B.C. (EDABC) report that was provided to the Village of Burns Lake.
The EDABC arranged for a group of eight economic development professionals to volunteer their time and come to Burns Lake to conduct an analysis of economic development opportunities in the local area.
The EDABC also spoke with 150 locals and interviewed 44 businesses to gather information to use in compiling a report.
“The village has already acted upon some of the recommendations in that report. They are working on hiring a full time economic development officer this fall, they are providing economic development training for municipal leaders and Northern Development Initiative Trust hosted boot camp held for local area contractors and suppliers,” Bell said.
He said a tourism plan for the area has already been completed and handed to the Village of Burns Lake.
Bell said the village is also looking into forming a tourism committee and have been provided with $30,000 in funding from Tourism B.C. to help.
“They will also be including First Nations culture into the downtown revitalization phase one by placing First Nations clan carvings around town. Funding for this came from the Omineca Beetle Action Coalition and from Northern Development Initiative Trust,” Bell said.
Bell also mentioned the annual Burns Lake Mountain Bike Club’s Big Pig event that will be held in August.
“I am hoping the media will write about this because it is an enormous mountain biking event and there will be a push to make it one of the biggest events of its kind in B.C.,” he said.
Bell also said that he had not given up on a rebuild of the Babine Forest Products sawmill and said he expected the special committee on timber supply will have a report back to government by mid August.
“At that point in time, we will be in a better position to advise Hampton Affiliates what might be possible for fibre supply for the area.
Hampton has been working very hard on figuring out their potential reconstruction plan so its been a dual track process. I’ve been speaking with the senior management team at Hampton on a regular basis and I believe that if we are able, through this special legislative committee to support the re-development of that mill, I am hopeful that will happen,” he added.