‘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

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.”

Just Posted

Outside the Kitimat RCMP police station, Diversity Morgan’s family and Kitimat RCMP come together for a pride flag-raising ceremony. (Jacob Lubberts photo)
Kitimat RCMP host pride flag ceremony in memory of Diversity Morgan

“We’re gathered here in solidarity for anyone who’s ever experienced prejudice or discrimination”

(Haisla First Nation logo)
Haisla Nation host walk for strength and series of virtual sessions for Indigenous History Month

The purpose of the walk is to bring Haisla Nation members together and show their collective support

The District of Kitimat will be awarding business owners with a store front up to $5,000 to cover up to 50 per cent of exterior renovations. (Norhtern Development logo)
The District of Kitimat is awarding $5,000 to storefront owners for exterior renovations

The district has set aside $20,000 this year and non-profits are also eligible

Ron getting loose and sipping a glass of the family’s favourite greek amber spirit, Metaxa. (Photo supplied)
In Our Valley: Ron Lechner

Retired part-time singer and Rio Tinto lifer: Ron Lechner

Map of the road work that will be completed this summer. The streets highlighted in red are what the district planned on completing before additional funding, and the streets highlighted in orange is the road works that will be done with the additional funding. (District of Kitimat photo)
$1.1 million allocated for road work this year in Kitimat

Kitimat council has added $470,000 for more work by deferring four other projects.

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Most Read