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The Globe and Mail

B.C. government hopes owners will rebuild Burns Lake mill

Two B.C. sawmill workers are still missing after an explosion at their Burns Lake mill Friday. Fire Chief Jim McBride says he has never seen anything like the mill fire in his 36 years with the service.

The B.C. government is stepping in to help workers displaced by a deadly blast at a Burns Lake sawmill find new work – but for many, the jobs likely won't be in Burns Lake.

B.C. Jobs Minister Pat Bell will travel to the village, about 200 kilometres west of Prince George, on Friday to launch on economic recovery plan.

The blast at the Babine Forest Products mill left two dead. A dozen others are still in hospital, some in critical condition.

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Beyond the immediate tragedy, residents are worried about the future of the town if the mill is not rebuilt.

The mill employed 280 workers – 40 per cent of them from the six native bands that are partners in the mill – and provided more than 100 indirect forestry jobs.

Mr. Bell said his long-term objectives are to assist the community in diversifying the economy and encouraging the mill's owners, Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates, to rebuild.

"In the short term, it is about finding opportunities for replacement employment," he said in an interview. "It may be in town or out of town, but I'll be working on it."

He noted that he worked on a similar transition effort for Mackenzie, when every one of that town's forestry mills shut down. "Many did choose to work outside of Mackenzie, but they're all back now," he said. Residents were able to return to their community when the mills reopened.

The owners of Babine Forest Products have been non-committal about rebuilding.

Meanwhile, the BC Coroners Service and the RCMP are still focused on the retrieval of two bodies from the massive tangle of debris – most of it still unstable and smouldering – where the mill stood.

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Relying on tips about where Robert Luggi Jr. and Carl Charlie were last seen before a fireball ripped through the mill on Friday night, investigators were able to locate two sets of human remains, but the recovery is still underway.

Determining the cause of the explosion is expected to take months. The BC Safety Authority, which is responsible for certifying the plant's network of boilers and gas and electrical technology, has sent a battery of experts to the mill site to try to determine if any of those systems failed. So far they have not been able to search beyond the perimeter of the wreckage because the site is still highly unstable.

Peter Lineen, chief executive officer of the BC Forest Safety Council, said investigators may have to rely on previous inspection reports, maintenance orders and workers' testimony for clues, such as any recent work on natural gas supply systems or concerns about heavy sawdust accumulations.

Officials from WorkSafe BC, responsible for worker safety, are also interviewing employees about any safety concerns that may have come up in the days and hours before the blast.

An inspection report from WorkSafe BC shows the mill, under a previous owner, was fined in 2006 for a violation "that resulted in a high risk of serious injury or death." WorkSafe officials could not provide details Tuesday on the reason for the fine.

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