Explosion and fire decimates Babine Forest Products sawmill

At approximately 8 p.m. on Jan. 20 2012, a large explosion and fire occurred at Babine Forest Products sawmill, East of Burns Lake.

Babine Forest Products

Babine Forest Products

At approximately 8 p.m. on Jan. 20 2012, a large explosion and fire occurred at Babine Forest Products sawmill, East of Burns Lake.

Eleven members of the Burns Lake Fire and Rescue Department initially responded to several 911 calls from the scene.

Upon arriving at the mill, Burns Lake Fire and Rescue Department fire chief Jim McBride called in emergency assistance from neighbouring fire departments and 12 members of the Houston Fire Department immediately responded to the call.

At the time of the accident, there was approximately 60 employees working at the site, including 37 in the sawmill.

RCMP and a number ambulances arrived at the mill from across the district to transport injured workers to the Lakes District Hospital. Mill employees also transported injured coworkers to the hospital in private vehicles.

Nineteen patients were treated with injuries that ranged from minor to critical including some with severe burns.

According to Northern Health, four patients were subsequently airlifted from Prince George. Two to Edmonton and two to Vancouver General Hospital. Eight patients were transferred to the University Hospital of Northern B.C.

Two patients were transferred to the Bulkley Valley Hospital in Smithers and one to the St. John Hospital in Vanderhoof.

The remaining patients were discharged from the Lakes District Hospital soon after the incident.

B.C. Hydro was called to the scene to restore power and Pacific Northern Gas arrived on the scene late Friday night.

Lakes District News was on the scene at the Lakes District Hospital as ambulances were arriving with injured workers. An employee of Babine Forest Products said she was working with a crew of about 25 people in the sawmill when she noticed a strong gas smell. “All of a sudden there was a big explosion. It was so loud. About half the crew was seriously injured. I was one of the lucky ones. I was working down the other end of the mill. There’s a huge fire at the mill … I don’t know if everyone is okay or even where half the crew is. I am told everyone is being brought to the Lakes District Hospital so that everyone can be accounted for.”

Another Babine Forest Products employee said to Lakes District News that he also smelled gas and said the explosion was so loud that he was having trouble hearing.

A crowd of concerned locals and family members gathered outside the hospital waiting to hear news about their loved ones.

Burns Lake RCMP quickly blocked off Centre Street, near the hospital, to allow emergency vehicles easy access.

Northern Heath called a ‘code orange’ [mass causality accident] at 10:52 p.m. on Jan, 20 following the accident. The code orange extended from Prince George to Smithers.

The Office of the Fire Commissioner and representatives from Work Safe B.C. also arrived on the scene and worked with emergency crews in blizzard type conditions.

The sawmill was completely destroyed in the explosion and fire, which claimed one life and resulted in 19 injuries, some critical with severe burns. One person still confirmed missing. The next day, media from across the province gathered at the Village of Burns Lake’s council chambers tonight to ask questions at a press conference about the status of the Babine Forest Products explosion and fire that destroyed the sawmill last night.

Jim McBride, fire chief for the Burns Lake Fire and Rescue Department, St. Sgt. Grant MacDonald from the Burns Lake RCMP detachment, Mayor Luke Strimbold, Bill Miller, area B director from the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako,  Burns Lake Band Chief Albert Gerow and Steve Zika, Hampton Affiliates CEO participated in the press conference.

When asked to describe last night’s events McBride said, “I have never seen the devastation that I witnessed last night. When I arrived, the mill was completely engulfed in flames. It was devastation … chaos reigned supreme.”

Many of the mill’s employees were gathered at the parking lot when he arrived. “I received numerous reports that there was five people unaccounted for. Three were located, but two still remain unaccounted for.” He said the buildings at the mill are numerous and large and locating missing individuals is a daunting task. “We found three people quicker than we had anticipated.”

The three individuals were located within 20 minutes of the fire crew arriving at the scene. They were disoriented, had severe burns and temporarily deaf from the loud explosion.

He said at 3:30 a.m. the fire crew ran out of water to fight the fire. At this time the volunteer crew withdrew their equipment.

The fire department was using 2,300 imperial gallons of water per second to battle the enormous blaze. “We had three pumper trucks working at the mill’s reservoir [which holds 300,000 gallons] and would have had an adequate water supply if we were fighting a normal fire. The explosion also severed the sprinkler system and because of this, we couldn’t get water pressure. The Hampton maintenance crew recognized this and shut off all the valves to the sprinkler system.” He said the mill has two deep wells for their water supply and no water is drawn from the lake. There is also four fire hydrants. “We operated out of two of the fire hydrants.”

“I couldn’t imagine anything as big as this fire …. you have got to imagine the size of the mill. When I arrived it was engulfed in flames from stem to stern.  Our first priority was the safety of the employees. Equipment can be replaced, but individuals cannot.”

When asked about any possible fatalities McBride said, “At this point we have not found anything that would suggest one way or another.”

Chief Gerow, also representing Burns Lake Native Development Corporation who have an 11 per cent ownership of the mill said, “Our hearts go out to the families. I spent a number of hours at the Lakes District Hospital and the Margaret Patrick Memorial Hall giving families comfort.”

He said any reports of a gas smell days before the explosion is hearsay. “There is nothing definite … our first concern is the immediate welfare of all of the employees.

Lakes District News asked Zika about the future of Babine Forest Products. He said, “The welfare of our employees comes first. The future of the mill is important to the community and important to Hampton. We have good crews working for us and there is no reason that we can’t be successful. The decision to rebuild depends on a lot of factors, but I can assure you we will be transparent with any decisions we make. There has been a mountain pine beetle problem in the area and timber supply will be part of the equation…. I can’t give any promises about the future.”

He went on to say that the good news for the company is that the planer mill is intact and the logs and lumber supply is untouched by fire. He said a brand new sawmill would cost anywhere from $25 million to $100 million to rebuild.

“The only reports of a gas smell I have heard have come from the media,” he answered, when asked about reports that employees reported smelling gas days before. According to Zika, Hampton has a number of safety initiatives in place at all of its mills. “Safety is very important to us. In 30 to 40 years I have never seen anything happen like this.”

Zika confirmed that there had been a small fire at the mill in February 2011 which was due to damaged electrical wiring, but that the wiring had been completely updated and repaired following the incident. “The mill has been around for many years and we have been working on updating it. We corrected  those deficiencies in February and March of 2011.”

He said he could not confirm where the fire and explosion occurred, or the cause and could not speculate on the issue any further.

Staff Sergeant MacDonald said the RCMP maintains control over the investigation into the fire and explosion.  “RCMP investigators are travelling to the community as we speak. It was a significant fire without a doubt and everyone did a commendable job under extreme weather conditions. If it was not for their efforts, we would have lost a lot more.”

He said the RCMP had been in contact with the Coroner; however it was simply to make contact and apprise them of the situation.

McBride was asked if the response by paramedics was adequate as employees were transporting injured people to the hospital in their own vehicles. “Initial casualties were dealt with in private vehicles. Ambulances arrived soon after the fire department. They arrived from Fraser Lake, Vanderhoof, Burns Lake and Houston …. they did the best they could with the resources.”

Chief Gerow added, “I spent the evening at the hospital and I can tell you they were working under incredible odds. There was 19 injured arriving at the hospital within four hours. They were all triaged locally and sent to Prince George, then assessed and sent on to other hospitals. There was also a foot of snow that fell in Burns Lake last night and the airport could not be used to airlift patients due to the weather. With limited resources, everyone did and incredible job and I salute their efforts.”