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All BC sawmills to be inspected after fatal Canadian mill blast

25 April 2012

The government of British Columbia said on April 25 that all sawmills in the province would be inspected after a massive blaze triggered by an explosion at a sawmill resulted in the death of two workers.

All sawmills in British Columbia will be inspected after the massive explosion and fire at the Prince George sawmill
All sawmills in British Columbia will be inspected after the massive explosion and fire at the Prince George sawmill

The April 23 explosion at the Lakeland Sawmill in Prince George, 500km north of Vancouver, saw one immediate death and about two dozen employees taken to hospital with various injuries. Ten were in a serious condition, according to the Northern Health Authority, and one of these died 24 hours later.

Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said she would "send an order out to all the sawmills in the province instructing them to inspect from top to bottom their mills, to make sure all steps are being taken to address current safety policy."

There were 24 employees working inside the sawmill at the time of the blast, according to mill owner Sinclar Group Forest Products Ltd. Sixteen others were working in an on-site planer mill, while four were in the yard.

About 170 people work at Lakeland, which includes a hot oil energy system for drying lumber. There is no gas supply to the mill.

The explosion at the sawmill was powerful enough to shake buildings and rattle windows several kilometres away, and observers witnessed flames 30 metres high and a large black mushroom cloud. The sawmill portion of the plant was completely destroyed, said Prince George Fire Chief John Lane, who described the explosion as "catastrophic." Crews had all but one section of the blaze extinguished by the afternoon of April 24.

Roberta Ellis, vice-president of corporate services at WorkSafeBC, said inspection officers will be fanning out across British Columbia to ensure that mill operators comply with the order. “We believe this is a prudent step to take. Combustible dust and dust accumulation is an issue,” Ms. Ellis declared. 

Last January, the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, 230 kilometres west of Prince George, exploded in a similar fireball. Two mill workers were killed and 19 injured. Both mills were cutting an abundance of wood harvested from forests ravaged by the mountain pine beetle, which produces a fine, dry sawdust.

At the time of the Burns Lake tragedy, industry veterans said they could not recall a BC sawmill blowing up like that before. Now, it has happened twice in relatively short order.

WorkSafeBC officials have not released any details on their ongoing investigation into the Burns Lake explosion. “We recognize that there are similarities between the explosion in Burns Lake and Prince George,” Ms. Ellis said. “Both are sawmills, dust was present in both, as in all sawmills, and both mills were working with beetle-infested wood.”

But she stressed that it remains premature to speculate on the exact cause of either explosion.

Greg Stewart, president of Sinclar Group Forest Products, which acquired Lakeland Mills in 1973, disclosed that there was a small fire at the mill in February when some sawdust ignited on a halogen light during maintenance, but there was no reason to link the two incidents.

He said the mill has been processing pine-beetle kill since 2003, without previous mishaps.

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