Lakes District News sat down with Mayor Luke Strimbold and Burns Lake Fire and Rescue Department, fire chief Jim McBride last week to discuss the explosion and fire at Babine Forest Products, as well as what impact the loss of the mill will have on the local area.
RCMP have closed and secured the Babine Forest Products site and are conducting the investigation into the cause of last Friday’s incident.
McBride said the clean up efforts will resume once it has been determined that the mill site is structurally sound. A structural engineer is expected to arrive on the scene to assess the situation and will assist with the search efforts.
A search of the mill’s perimeter is also being conducted, but McBride added that any search of the mill’s interior can’t begin until structural safety has been assured.
He said he received numerous reports from mill employees about where the missing employee may have been working at the time of the explosion, but explained that it is difficult to pinpoint where his exact location could have been.
He said that as with any work place, employees move from place to place as they conduct their duties.
“We have had all sorts of reports about where he could have been …. there is two general areas at opposite ends of the mill that we can isolate and we have conducted a primary search …. it is an enormous undertaking.”
McBride said it is still unknown what happened at the mill that night and said he could not confirm reports that the explosion occurred due to a gas leak. He said he also could not give an estimate as to when the investigation will be complete.
Lakes District News asked Mayor Strimbold if he will be putting any pressure on Hampton Affiliates to rebuild the mill. He said the Village of Burns Lake, the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako, Burns Lake Native Development Corporation, who own an 11 per cent stake in Babine Forest Products, and Hampton Affiliates will be working together in the coming days and weeks to put pressure on the provincial government for both an increased timber supply for the mill and for transitional funding for the local area. “In the end though, [rebuilding the mill] is a business decision that will be made by Hampton Affiliates,” he said.
Mayor Strimbold explained that transitional funding has previously been given by the government to the communities of Mackenzie and Fort St. James when mills in both communities shut down. He said transitional funding should be in the million dollar range, but added that the province is currently in the midst of budget negotiations, so nothing has been confirmed. “This is about how much the other communities received,” he said, adding that he is not quite sure how the funding would be paid out to the community, but said it would not go to the village. He said it would be used for job creation and education initiatives and said the funding could also possibly be used to put people to work at the Babine Forest Products site during demolition and clean up. “We want to keep the professional millwrights in our community,” he said.
Lakes District News also asked Mayor Strimbold what he envisions for the future of the local area, if Hampton Affiliates chooses not to rebuild the mill.
He said, Burns Lake Native Development Corporation has made it loud and clear that they want some kind of mill to be built in the area. If we have to look for someone to facilitate that, then we will, but we hope that Hampton Affiliates decide to rebuild.
McBride added that there is still infrastructure standing at the mill. He said the planer mill is fully intact and the log yard is untouched by fire.
Mayor Strimbold said that while he did not have an opportunity to discuss the issue with the Premier during her visit to Burns Lake last weekend, he was able to speak with Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad.
“The government is in the process of reviewing the midterm timber supply and we hope this review can be completed earlier. We want to ensure there is timber for the mill. I relayed this message to MLA Rustad, who said he would relay it to the Premier.”
Hampton Affiliates, CEO Steve Zika also confirmed that the planer mill survived the fire.
He said that at the time of the accident there was approximately 60 employees on the site, including 37 in the sawmill.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to our employees, their families and their supportive community. We have had an overwhelming outpouring of support from the community, government leaders, contractors and our competitors. At this time our focus is on caring for our injured and grieving employees. We are not speculating on the cause of the accident and will let the proper authorities complete their investigation. No decisions will be made on restarting the planer mill or rebuilding the sawmill until more facts are known and our employees are properly cared for,” said Zika.