02/10/2012 08:25 EST | Updated 04/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Minister takes methodical approach to timber supply question at exploded BC mill

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 and five other area First Nations chiefs presented Jobs Minister Pat Bell with a plan Friday 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.

The chiefs asked 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," said Gerow.

"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 circulated in Burns Lake and planned to present to Bell.

The First Nations want 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 and the chiefs want 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.

But Bell was taking a slower approach.

He said after the Friday meeting that participants agreed it was too early to talk about a specific timber-supply volume. What must come first, said Bell, is a timber-supply analysis in the region.

That analysis would take between six and eight weeks, he said.

"We did agree, though, that the First Nations would play a key role in any incremental tenure that's associated if the Hampton mill attempts to rebuild," he said.

"In our meetings with Hampton, clearly, the timber supply security is a key issue.

"I think Hampton is keenly interested in working with First Nations to acquire that tenure and have the security of supply that will be necessary. And certainly, we agree with that."

Gerow said he was at a breakfast meeting with mill workers recently 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."

To settle some of those fears, a jobs fair was held in the community Friday, said Bell.

Attending the event were 25 different companies offering 1,307 jobs for labourers, skilled trades persons and even managers.

The majority of those jobs were within an hour's drive of Burns Lake and in communities like Houston or Vanderhoof.

During a separate meeting with municipal officials, Bell said the province agreed to do a detailed analysis on transportation assistance and it will now try to find funding.

Bell also said there are jobs available with the forest service as part of a program to clean up areas impacted by a massive forest fire two years ago in an effort to reduce the risk of a future fire.

"There is funding available for that and we committed to work with them on that," he said.