Burns Lake’s loss of a sawmill is raising questions about the long-term timber supply along the Highway 16 corridor.
Two men were killed and 250 mill workers lost their livelihoods Jan. 20 when an explosion and fire levelled the Babine Forest Products sawmill. A key question for the Burns Lake task force led by B.C. jobs minister Pat Bell is whether the sawmill owner, Hampton Affiliates, can secure enough timber to rebuild.
“We have to take a significant look at the whole area and see whether there are viable options that can make things work,” said John Rustad, the Liberal MLA for Nechako Lakes and a member of the task force.
Rustad said some 300 million cubic metres worth of timber lie unallocated in the Fort St. James and Mackenzie timber supply area. South of Ootsa Lake is another 5 million cubic metres that may be an option if prices stay high, he added.
Rustad also said that if the Enbridge pipeline goes ahead, the resulting two-lane resource road to Kitimat might bring coastal stands within reach of a rebuilt Burns Lake mill.
In the Houston area, Rustad said the Morice timber supply are is already well allocated between the Canfor and Houston Forest Products sawmills. But it will certainly be part of the discussions, he said.
“The challenge will be of course, that if we find wood for Hampton but cause problems for somebody else, what have we really solved?” he added.
Mayor Bill Holmberg said it’s early to say exactly what the next steps are.
“They’re still in a state of disbelief I think, but they’re working through it,” said Holmberg.
Mayor Holmberg said he and other leaders from neighbouring Fraser Lake and Smithers have met with Burns Lake Mayor Luke Strimbold, he said, and offered all the help they can.
“There are a lot of people who are affected, and the thoughts of the people of Houston are with them,” he said.
Asked what effect sawmill loss might have on Houston businesses, Holmberg said it will clearly hurt industrial supply and services businesses.
Babine Forest Products was one of the top ten customers at Finning, the heavy-equipment dealer where he is a manager, Holmberg said.
At Houston’s Nadina Truck Service, manager Henry Fennema said the strongest losses will fall on Burns Lake’s own auto supply stores, tire shops and fuel suppliers.
“It would be identical to what would happen if one of the mills dropped here,” he said.
But Fennema also expects Nadina will take a hit, as they do service logging trucks that served the mill and trucks that hauled sawdust from the Burns Lake mill to Houston’s Pinnacle Pellet plant.
Across the street at Pacific Truck & Equipment, manager Kevin Groot said he hasn’t run exact numbers yet, but traffic to and from the Burns Lake mill likely made up some twenty per cent of their clients.
Groot also said the mill fire came at a time when business was picking up across the forest industry.
“Everything’s been turning the other way,” he said. “We’ve all gone through a bit of a downturn, but the industry’s looking to the Chinese market now.”
At the Houston mall, First Choice Fashions owner Rod Kluss said he also has many regular clients who worked at Babine Forest Products and came into his shop for work boots and clothes.
“We’ll just have to wait to see how it plays out,” he said.