NEWS

Babine Forest Service Mill Fire: Burns Lake Community Picks Up The Pieces As The Smoke Clears

01/22/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 03/22/2012 05:12 EDT
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BURNS LAKE, B.C. - Family members of two mill workers struggled Sunday against concluding their loved ones were likely killed in an explosion and fire that ripped apart their workplace.

The two men, missing since the blast in Burns Lake, B.C. Friday, were last seen at work.

Authorities have not confirmed them dead, but Norman Charlie said his family needed closure, and soon.

His first cousin, Carl Charlie, is one of the two men unaccounted for.

"He was a good young man, happy, go-lucky and free — never let anything stress him out," Norman Charlie said.

"For me, I'm thinking in my mind is (they should) go in there and find him."

RCMP said Sunday it will be some time before investigators can even get on to the still-smoldering site. A structural engineer must deem it safe first, said Const. Lesley Smith.

Charlie said he understands the delay.

But he added: "Just for the parents, my uncle and aunt. (They need) closure. I don't want to think the worst. They've been through a lot, in the past ten years they've been through a lot. And this is just more hurts, I guess."

Charline Schmidt, a distant cousin, said Carl is a fun-loving person who is always joking and laughing. He has two children, is a hockey fan and a member of the Babine Lake Nation.

"He's always glad to see us, hugging us," Schmidt said. "He would smile, say 'How are you?' A very friendly person."

She said the last thing she heard from the fire chief was: "If they're in there, they're deceased."

The second missing man was identified by an aunt as Robert Luggi, a member of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation just west of Burns Lake.

He, too, was a father and had one grandchild.

"He always had a smile on his face," said Vinh Nguyen, 27, a security watchman at the mill who remembers Luggi from his rounds.

Both men were in their 40s, the relatives say.

Smith said police began interviewing mill employees Sunday, but it will take a while before RCMP determine the cause of the blast or whether it was caused by criminal activity.

"The magnitude of this fire and the area is immense," the constable said.

"This will be a meticulous search as investigators must be methodical and thorough as they sift through the rubble and debris looking for any evidence, not only to determine a cause for the fire, but also in the event they find some remains."

Nineteen people were injured in the blast which took place in the northern town some 228 kilometres west of Prince George, including at least four who were in critical condition.

On Sunday, three were released from hospital in Prince George, the Northern Health Authority said in a statement.

The authority did not give details on the conditions of the three patients sent to Vancouver General Hospital — another will be transferred Monday — or the two that were airlifted to hospital in Edmonton.

Another patient was sent to hospital in Victoria. The remainder were in hospitals in Vanderhoof and Prince George.

Uninjured employees told of the horror of dragging out their injured, sometimes badly burned colleagues.

Victim services workers from the RCMP and local aboriginal groups were in the community to help with the trauma, Smith said.

The mill, Babine Forest Products, is a joint venture between a business consortium of area aboriginal bands and Oregon-based forest company Hampton Affiliates.

A different fire described by the company as "significant" shut down the mill temporarily last March, but Smith said she's unaware of any safety concerns.

Workers have said safety was always top of mind at the mill.

"I understand they have some safety measures that were in place at the time (last year) and I believe they were reviewed just recently," Smith said.

"It's not unlike a sawmill to have smaller fires that are put out due to the heat and the fact that you're working with dry wood. That can happen at any sawmill."

Donna Freeman, a spokeswoman for WorkSafe BC, said officers are in the process of gathering the workplace inspection history.

She said six to seven WorkSafe BC officers, including an engineer, are now in Burns Lake but they can't get onto the site.

She said this will be one of the largest workplace incidents in British Columbia that she's aware of.

Pale grey smoke was still gently rising Sunday from the site just off Highway 16.

In front of the burned-out rubble, piles of raw logs were neatly stacked next to wide, processed boards, all the wood covered in several thick inches of white snow.

The mill opened in 1975, ushering in a wave of newcomers from across the country and building the village from the ground up, according to some of its working men.

For the better part of his life, grinding out 12 hour shifts on the floor of the sawmill had been all John Ruffell had known.

He said when his work week begins again, he'll be at a loss.

"I thought about working on my golf swing. I'm going to have some free time in the spring," Ruffell said with a sad chuckle as he stood near the front gate of the blue collar town's industrial core.

"Next week we'll start figuring stuff out, I guess."

Aside from worries over the injured and missing, workers and their families are now trying to digest the future of the business that was so integral to the community and whether it can be rebuilt.

"There is hope. They can do it. It just takes the will," said one labourer, who asked to remain anonymous and who has been 33 years on the job.

The man, who left for home only about an hour before the explosion, said the mill has had its peaks and valleys, but appeared to be back on the upswing again after several rough years owing to the faltering economy.

"This year and last year they started making profits again. Things were just coming back. This community dug really deep to keep this place going. And now this."

The company had even handed workers a wage hike for weathering the recent downturn, and before that had not asked for wage decreases like other mills had done to keep afloat, he said.

"This is not an easy industry to get started in or to stay in. It's commitment to high-intensity, it's almost like warfare."

The impact of losing the mill will be "colossal," said Bruce Disher, a welder with the mill for 31 years.

"The whole town is basically Babine Forest Products. We have one other small sawmill, west of town. Probably 80 per cent of the jobs in Burns Lake end right here," the welder said.

Premier Christy Clark arrived in the community Sunday and said what comes next is a priority.

"I want to make sure that this community remains a vibrant forest-based community. And this mill has been the heart and soul of this community for a long, long time," she said.

"It's hard to be specific about how that's going to happen."

She acknowledged there are issues with fibre supply at the mill, something the chief executive officer of the Oregon-based company that is part owner of the mill said Saturday.

"Political promises are not something I overly trust too much," said Ernie Nesbitt, a 36-year employee of the mill, when asked to reflect on the premier's visit.

"If they can build the Sea to Sky Highway with our money, they can bloody well put some infrastructure back in place.”

Nesbitt said he was inside the mill when the explosion occurred and helped evacuate colleagues. He said people must now focus on how the government can help and how people can put the tragedy behind them.

Steve Zika, chief executive officer of Hampton Affiliates, flew into the snow-coated village from Portland, Ore., on Saturday afternoon.

"We realize what an important mill it is to the community and it's important to Hampton," he said at the news conference.

He said the planer and motorized equipment portions of the operation were intact, but the lion's share — worth anywhere from $25 to $100 million — was gone.

"The bias, obviously, is to rebuild — who wouldn't want to? But until we get past the situation of our employees, there's just a lot of factors that go into that decision about whether to rebuild or not."

He noted the company would have to weigh the pine beetle problem and timber supply into the equation.

The scourge of pine beetles has devastated B.C.'s lumber industry, wiping out vast tracts of forest throughout the province.

"We really can't make any comment on when we'll know, other than promising the community we'll be transparent."