‘Chaos reigned supreme’ at Burns Lake mill explosion

'I have never seen the devastation I witnessed last night,' Burns Lake Fire Chief Jim McBride said after a fire at Babine Forest Products.

A large fire engulfs the Babine Forest Products mill

Media from across the province gathered at the Village of Burns Lake’s council chambers Saturday to hear details after the Babine Forest Products explosion and fire that destroyed the sawmill late Friday.

Jim McBride, fire chief for the Burns Lake Fire and Rescue Department, gave a stark assessment.

“I have never seen the devastation that I witnessed last night. When I arrived, the mill was completely engulfed in flames. It was devastation … chaos reigned supreme.”

McBride was joined at the conference by Staff Sgt. Grant MacDonald from the Burns Lake RCMP, Mayor Luke Strimbold, Bill Miller, area B director from the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako, Burns Lake Band Chief Albert Gerow and Steve Zika, Hampton Affiliates CEO.

Many of the mill’s employees were gathered at the parking lot when McBride arrived.

“I received numerous reports that there was five people unaccounted for. Three were located, but two still remain unaccounted for.”

He said the many large buildings at the mill make locating missing individuals a daunting task.

“We found three people quicker than we had anticipated.”

The three individuals were located within 20 minutes of the fire crew arriving at the scene. They were disoriented, had severe burns and were temporarily deaf from the loud explosion.

He said at 3:30 a.m. the fire crew ran out of water to fight the fire. At this time the volunteer crew withdrew their equipment.

The fire department was using 2,300 imperial gallons of water per second to battle the blaze.

“We had three pumper trucks working at the mill’s reservoir [which holds 300,000 gallons] and would have had an adequate water supply if we were fighting a normal fire.”

The explosion severed the sprinkler system, hindering efforts. The Hampton maintenance crew recognized this and shut off all the valves to the sprinkler system.

“I couldn’t imagine anything as big as this fire …. you have got to imagine the size of the mill. When I arrived it was engulfed in flames from stem to stern.  Our first priority was the safety of the employees. Equipment can be replaced, but individuals cannot.”

Asked about any possible fatalities, McBride said, “At this point we have not found anything that would suggest one way or another.”

Chief Gerow, representing Burns Lake Native Development Corporation, which has an 11 per cent ownership of the mill said, “Our hearts go out to the families. I spent a number of hours at the Lakes District Hospital and the Margaret Patrick Memorial Hall giving families comfort and there is still hope that missing family members will come home.”

Gerow said any reports of a gas smell days before the explosion is hearsay.

“There is nothing definite … our first concern is the immediate welfare of all of the employees.

Asked about the future of Babine Forest Products. Hampton Affliiates CEO Zika said, “The future of the mill is important to the community and important to Hampton.

“The decision to rebuild depends on a lot of factors, but I can assure you we will be transparent with any decisions we make. There has been a mountain pine beetle problem in the area and timber supply will be part of the equation…. I can’t give any promises about the future.”

He said the good news for the company is that the planer mill is intact and the logs and lumber supply is untouched by fire. He said a brand new sawmill would cost anywhere from $25 million to $100 million.

Regarding media reports that some employees smelled gas in the days before the explosion, Zikia said: “The only reports of a gas smell I have heard have come from the media.”

He added Hampton has safety initiatives at all its mills.

“Safety is very important to us. In 30 to 40 years I have never seen anything happen like this.”

Zika confirmed there had been a small fire at the mill in February 2011 due to damaged electrical wiring, but the wiring had been updated.

He could not confirm where the fire and explosion occurred, or the cause.

Staff Sgt. MacDonald said the RCMP maintains control over the investigation.

“RCMP investigators are travelling to the community as we speak. It was a significant fire without a doubt and everyone did a commendable job under extreme weather conditions. If it was not for their efforts, we would have lost a lot more.”

McBride was asked if the response by paramedics was adequate as employees were transporting injured people to the hospital in their own vehicles.

“Initial casualties were dealt with in private vehicles. Ambulances arrived soon after the fire department. They arrived from Fraser Lake, Vanderhoof, Burns Lake and Houston …. they did the best they could with the resources.”

Chief Gerow added, “I spent the evening at the hospital and I can tell you they were working under incredible odds. There was 19 injured arriving at the hospital within four hours. They were all triaged locally and sent to Prince George, then assessed and sent on to other hospitals. There was also a foot of snow that fell in Burns Lake last night and the airport could not be used to airlift patients due to the weather. With limited resources, everyone did and incredible job and I salute their efforts.”