02/10/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 04/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Chief says mill workers face confusion, fear as bills mount, future uncertain

VICTORIA - Mounting bills and uncertain futures are putting pressure on out-of-work mill employees suffering the after-effects of last month's deadly workplace blast, says Burns Lake Indian Band Chief Al Gerow.

Gerow said he and five other area First Nations chiefs will present Jobs Minister Pat Bell with a plan today to help rebuild the Babine Forests Products mill.

Two workers died and 19 others were injured in last month's unexplained explosion that levelled the north-central B.C. mill, putting 250 people out of work indefinitely.

Hampton Affiliates, the Oregon-based owners of the mill, said they have yet to decide whether to reopen the mill, but have indicated the lack of a guaranteed timber supply in the area is one of their concerns.

Gerow said the chiefs will ask Bell to award the First Nations the rights to 1.1 million cubic metres of available area timber to ensure there's wood to supply a new mill.

"We cannot afford to wait six months, 12 months or even 18 months. This needs to happen now so that we can begin planning a new sawmill for Babine Forest Products Company," said a support letter the chiefs are circulating in Burns Lake and will present to Bell.

The First Nations are calling on Bell to allocate the timber for the next 15 to 20 years.

"In the Lakes Timber Supply Area, there's a two million (cubic metres) annual allowable cut that's set for harvesting," said Gerow. "Presently, there are 900,000 cubic metres in forest licences that have been issued to different businesses, and so that leaves about 1.1 million that's unallocated."

Gerow said the chiefs will ask Bell to grant them the rights to that timber to provide a "stable fibre supply to Hampton."

He said the community needs to move quickly to rebuild the mill as the shock of the explosion begins to wear off on workers and other Burns Lake residents.

Gerow said he was at a breakfast meeting with mill workers where he heard them raising desperate concerns about missing mortgage payments and putting food on the table.

Despite massive community relief efforts that include the donation of a truckload of food to the local food bank by grocery store Overwaitea, sped up Employment Insurance and WorkSafe BC injury claims, workers are beginning to worry, said Gerow.

"They're asking how do we pay for our rent? How do we pay our bills? How do we get food for our families?" he said in an interview.

Mill worker John Ruffell, a saw filer with almost 40 years experience at Babine Forest Products, said he hasn't heard deep concerns from workers, but he's fearful for the future of some of his younger co-workers.

Ruffell, 54, his mortgage paid and wife working, said he is confident he can ride out the situation, but it may be tough on young families.

"There's lots of younger guys out there who have mortgages, truck payments and kids," he said. "I know if this was 15 years ago, I'd have been a lot more panicky."

Steelworkers spokesman Steve Hunt said fear and confusion reigns in Burns Lake as people attempt to deal with physical and emotional injuries connected to the explosion.

"People are terrified up there over what the future holds," he said. "I don't think there's a person in town that's not affected."

Locals say the shock of the blast is starting to wear off and as reality sets in many people are openly worrying about feeding their families even though there are numerous relief efforts underway in the area.

Gerow says he and five other area First Nations chiefs will deliver a proposal to Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Minister Pat Bell today that ensures the U.S.-owned mill has a guaranteed timber supply.

Gerow says the chiefs will ask Bell to directly award to the First Nations the rights to 1.1 million cubic metres of available area timber to ensure there's wood to supply to supply a new mill.