01/26/2012 09:23 EST | Updated 03/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Rebuilding destroyed mill hinges on damaged forest

Mill workers in Burns Lake, B.C., will be collecting their final pay cheque Thursday as the company that owns the mill that was levelled in a fire last week tries to decide if there's enough timber in the area to justify rebuilding.

Two workers were killed and 19 others were injured when the Babine Forest Products mill blew up and burned Jan. 20, destroying the workplace of the major employer in the town, 200 kilometres west of Prince George.

A once richly forested area, Burns Lake is located among the province’s woodlands that have been devastated by the pine beetle infestation.

When asked directly if there’s enough timber to make it worth the company’s while, B.C.’s Chief Forester, Jim Snetsinger, hedged his bets.

"The simple answer is, there is no simple answer," Snetsinger told CBC News. "We’re in the wake of a mountain pine beetle epidemic and it's affected a large part of the timber supply."

90% infested

Nearly two-thirds of the trees around Burns Lake are lodgepole pines, and 90 per cent of them have been destroyed by the beetle.

Infested pines can still be used commercially, but yield much less good wood.

"There's still dead pine to be harvested up there," said Snetsinger. "At least a number of more years of dead pine that can be salvaged."

But there are also stands of spruce, balsam, and Douglas fir that make up about one-third of the 525,000 hectares of forest in the Lakes District Timber Supply Area that can be harvested.

Snetsinger said the experts will be heading back into the forest to determine just what timber is left and how viable any option might be to rebuild the Babine mill in Burns Lake.

Cause of explosion unclear

The Jan. 20 explosion is expected to be under investigation for months and the cause is not known, although one expert has told CBC News that heavy dust concentrations in the air at the mill might have been a factor.

A WorkSafeBC report issued just weeks before last Friday's explosion found dust levels in the basement of the Babine Forest Products mill were double what's considered safe for respiratory health.