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Burns Lake sawmill poised to rise from its ashes

Smoke rises from the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake, B.C. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

The owner of a Burns Lake sawmill that was destroyed by an explosion and fire will announce a plan to rebuild the facility on Monday, contingent upon the company securing a timber supply to feed the mill, according to sources involved in the matter.

Steve Zika, the chief executive officer of Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates, will be in Burns Lake for the announcement alongside provincial politicians, the sources said. Hampton's board is understood to have met on Thursday evening to decide whether to proceed with rebuilding the Babine Forest Products facility, which was levelled by the blast in January that killed two men and injured 44 others.

Mr. Zika will be joined by Pat Bell, Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation, John Rustad, local MLA and parliamentary secretary for forestry, as well as Burns Lake mayor Luke Strimbold.

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It is understood the company is willing to commit to rebuilding the Babine sawmill at a cost of approximately $100-million, but will only proceed if it believes it has a sufficient supply of wood fibre to feed the facility, which employed about 250 people before the explosion and fire.

That supply of timber could come from an increase in the amount of forest land Hampton is allowed to log or from other existing forest licence holders in the area willing to provide fibre to the mill. As well, the provincial government could increase the region's allowable annual cut and create new forestry licences that would drive a further expansion of logging near Burns Lake.

For example, the government could loosen restrictions on the cutting of old-growth forest areas and reduce certain limitations on logging in other areas.

In addition to forestry companies, local first nations are players in the region's forestry sector and may play a significant role in the proposed revival of the sawmill. The Burns Lake Native Development Corporation is a partner with Hampton Affiliates, owning 11 per cent of Babine Forest Products. The provincial government could award licences that would allow local first nations to log new areas if they promise to deliver the timber to the rebuilt mill.

Chief Albert Gerow of the Burns Lake Indian Band and the president and CEO of the Burns Lake Native Development Corporation said local first nations have offered to provide any suitable harvested timber to a new sawmill in Burns Lake in exchange for being awarded forestry licences by the government.

"I'm nervously looking forward to tomorrow. … I'm hoping we'll be celebrating," he said.

Mr. Strimbold said in an interview that he didn't know the specifics of Hampton's plan, but said he was hopeful the sawmill, which had long-served as the town's economic engine, could be rebuilt. "I don't know the details. I remain optimistic," said Mr. Strimbold, who was elected mayor in 2011 at the age of 21.

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Over the past seven months, Hampton has held discussions with the provincial government regarding ways to free up more timber supply in the region, which has been devastated by the mountain pine beetle epidemic affecting millions of hectares of forestland.

In August, the B.C. government's Special Legislative Committee on Timber Supply released a report that included the recommendation to relax constraints on logging in some circumstances to promote economic recovery in places like Burns Lake. Before it was destroyed, the sawmill was the largest employer in the town, which has a population of about 4,000.

Hampton has previously indicated that if it can secure a sufficient supply of timber it could begin constructing the sawmill in 2013 and the new facility could begin operations in 2014.

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