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Fatal fire in central BC kills two, levels sawmill

BURNS LAKE, BC (Canadian OH&S News)


BURNS LAKE, BC (Canadian OH&S News)

Two workers are dead and another 19 were injured after an explosion and the resulting inferno reduced a two-storey British Columbia lumber mill to rubble.

On Friday, January 20, at about 8 pm, RCMP officers responded to 911 calls from workers at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, British Columbia. The RCMP, the local volunteer fire department, BC Ambulance and emergency resources from nearby communities responded to the scene and began to evacuate workers, fight the blaze and transport the injured to hospital, the police reported in a release.

The two workers killed had been reported missing until their bodies were recovered on Tuesday.

“[The mill] is just a mass of twisted steel. There’s absolutely nothing left of it,” says Jim McBride, chief of the Burns Lake Volunteer Fire Department. By the time he and his 14 firefighters made the 28-kilometre drive through a snowstorm to the sawmill, the whole building was engulfed in flame.

“When I got there, the roof was blown off a section of it and it was just fire from one end to the other. All the walls were blown out and you were looking at the skeletal structure of the mill,” he says.

With the help of firefighters from nearby Houston, the blaze was kept from spreading to other buildings on the site, but the sawmill, the biggest building on the site, was too far gone, McBride says.

Water for the sawmill was coming from a cistern, and although the building had a sprinkler system, the explosion severed the water lines, McBride says, causing a drop in the pressure from the hydrants around the mill. This meant firefighters could not use their hoses until they shut down the flow to the sprinklers.

“We went into a defensive mode. We protected what we felt was protectable, but the mill, that size of a structure, it would have been a waste of time,” McBride says.

“Seven hours later, we pumped the reservoir dry. By then, the area we were defending had died down quite substantially so I had no regrets on pulling the crews out of there and sending them home to get ready for the next one.”

Northern Health, which co-ordinated all medical assistance at the incident, called a code orange – disaster or mass casualties – shortly before 11 pm and sent physicians, staff and supplies to the scene. There were 19 workers with injuries ranging from minor to critical and some with severe burns, the health services provider said in a statement. Injured workers were sent to hospitals in the surrounding area, as well as Vancouver and Edmonton.

As of Wednesday, January 25, nine patients had been released and 10 were still in hospital care.

“This is going to be a very slow process which can be very painful for the families affected here in the Burns Lake Community,” Constable Lesley Smith, media relations officer for the RCMP’s North District, says in a news release. Citing the magnitude of the fire and the size of the affected area, the RCMP reports that it will be consulting a structural engineer and working with outside agencies to assist with removing debris, weakened structures and machinery.

“It’s been snowing constantly; we’ve got about a foot of white accumulation since Friday, which is good because it smothered out any spot fires. But it sure hides the possible dangers of rooting around down there,” says McBride, adding that workers on the production floor when the incident happened said the explosion came from underneath them, which caused the building to collapse in on itself.

Portland, Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates, owners of the mill, report that there were about 60 employees on site at the time of the explosion, 37 of those working inside the sawmill.

“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,” Steve Zika, CEO of Hampton Affiliates, notes in a release, adding that the company has not made any decisions on if or when the sawmill would be rebuilt or when the planar mill, which was not damaged in the fire, would be restarted.

“This is a tragic loss for the community not only because individuals have been injured but it was a key employer for the area,” says Staff Sargeant Grant Macdonald, detachment commander of the Burns Lake RCMP. The mill employed approximately 250 workers.