Babine Forest Products 2011 fire report released

Due to heightened public interest into a Feb. 23, 2011 fire at the sawmill, the BC Safety Authority released a report.

BC Safety Authority photo shows the charred knife and jaw assembly of a Babine Forest Products sawmill electrical switch after a fire broke out at the sawmill on Feb. 23

BC Safety Authority photo shows the charred knife and jaw assembly of a Babine Forest Products sawmill electrical switch after a fire broke out at the sawmill on Feb. 23

Due to heightened public interest into a Feb. 23, 2011 fire at Babine Forest Products, the BC Safety Authority released a report last Tuesday detailing their subsequent investigation into the cause of that blaze.

According to BC Safety Authority‘s manager Stephen Hinde, any link between the Feb. 23, 2011 fire [as reported in the Lakes District News edition of Feb. 1, 2012] and the Jan. 20, 2012 explosion and fire at the sawmill, is unlikely.

While he declined to speculate on the cause of the Jan. 20, 2012 explosion and fire that leveled the Babine Forest Products sawmill he said, “The sudden and massive release of energy that we have seen in the 2012 explosion and fire is highly unlikely to have been caused by an event similar to the one that occurred at the sawmill in 2011. In my expert opinion and based on my experience, the nature and cause of the fire in 2011 was not likely to have caused an explosion and fire like we have seen in 2012 …. the fire in 2011 did not release enough energy to explain the magnitude of damage that we have seen in 2012.”

Hinde said the Feb, 23, 2011 fire at the sawmill was most likely caused by an electrical malfunction, which caused an electrical switch to spark, igniting a small amount of sawdust.

The report states that the right band saw motor overheated, but that an inspection using infrared thermography showed normal conditions so a variable frequency drive, used to control the frequency of electricity supplied to the motor, was bypassed.

He said the variable frequency drive was bypassed because it malfunctioned, but added that operating the motor in direct drive conditions is not an unusual course of action to take in this situation.

Then at 10:35 p.m. [on Feb. 23, 2011], when a button was pressed in the electrical room to start the 150 horsepower motor, there was a big spark inside the 36 year old electrical switch. According to the report, sawmill employees later said to the BC Safety Authority that they heard a loud explosion and saw flames shooting out of the electrical room.

Hinde said the small explosion caused combustible material, which he attributed to very dry sawdust, to ignite and cause a fire in the electrical room.

“The motor is located in the sawmill and close to the band mill equipment. The fire started in a separate room 10 metres away. The electrical spark was extremely hot …. all the copper melted in the switch. The molten copper ignited due to extremely dry sawdust around the electrical cables.”

Subsequent examination of the switch by the BC Safety Authority determined that there was sawdust accumulation in and on the equipment. The report also noted that the sawdust appeared to be unusually dry due to the wood source [mountain pine beetle killed timber] and preceding weather conditions.

The report also said that a small explosion within the switch may have stirred up enough dust to also cause a small dust explosion outside of the switch, propagating the fire. “The likelihood that a small dust explosion occurred is supported by the evidence of arcing between the copper plates and fuses, numerous other arcs and deposits of molten metal.”

While mill employees quickly extinguished the 2011 fire and no one was injured, there was an estimated $500,000 damage done to equipment including circuit and feeder conductors.

Hinde said that a relatively small fire can cause a significant amount of damage to equipment that is both expensive and difficult to repair.

Subsequent repair work after the 2011 fire involved installing new equipment in the sawmill, which Hinde said, met the BC Safety Authority inspector’s standards.

He said he is not aware of any reported sawdust issues at the sawmill and said the BC Safety Authority is primarily responsible for ensuring the safe installation and use of equipment such as electrical systems. “The sawmill has qualified employees and a valid operating permit. They were operating within their permit.”

The BC Safety Authority has not yet ruled out any possible cause of the Jan. 20, 2012 explosion and fire at the sawmill and Hinde said the investigation is ongoing.