Uncertainty in Burns Lake reflects B.C. forestry troubles
Workers at the Burns Lake mill that exploded in January are still waiting to see if they'll get their old jobs back in just one example of the struggles faced by B.C.'s forestry industry.
This week's fatal sawmill explosion in Prince George is bringing back painful memories for employees of Babine Forest Products, which experienced a similar blast that killed two men.
The Burns Lake Band has presented to province with a plan that includes building a new mill, according to Chief Al Gerow.
"If the sawmill is not rebuilt, we're going to be in real trouble here," he told CTV News.
"We've already gone three months of real unease in the community, not knowing what's going to happen next."
WorkSafe BC recently turned the site back over to the owners, Hampton Affiliates, but the company says it's waiting for information on the timber supply before deciding whether to rebuild. That decision could still be months away, and the company says that even if the mill is rebuilt it will be smaller than before.
More than 200 people worked at Babine Forest Products before it was destroyed. Burns Lake Mayor Luke Strimbold said that as of last week, 103 had returned to work in other jobs, but he'd prefer to see them return to the mill one day.
"We're very hopeful that we'll see a forest facility rebuilt," he said.
If it isn't, Burns Lake wouldn't be the only community to watch forestry jobs evaporate in recent years.
Almost 35,000 jobs in sawmills and logging have been lost in B.C. since 1991, leaving just under 39,000 people employed in the industry last year.
Forestry analyst Russ Taylor says that the future doesn't look much brighter.
"Twenty-three sawmills and/or veneer plants have closed since 2005 in the B.C. Interior. It's a huge number already and even with those mill closures there is still not going to be enough timber for the remaining mills," he said.
Most of the logs entering sawmills in the Interior now were cut down after they were killed by the mountain pine beetle. Those logs are of lower quality and are less valuable.
Reforesting beetle-affected areas would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but independent Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson says the time for action is now.
"My sense is the community is ready to have a serious, grounded, realistic conversation and then come back to the government and say, ‘Here's the resources we need to go through a transition that everybody knows we're going to go through,'" he said.
With reports from CTV British Columbia's Maria Weisgarber and Ed Watson