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After an explosion destroyed the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake last week, families in the community lit two candles for missing and injured workers. Then they lit a third candle for the mill itself.

Since the mill opened in 1975 as a joint venture with the local first nations, the village has relied on the mill as its prime source of jobs. Amid the grief and anger over the loss of life and the horrific injuries, there is deep anxiety for the future.

B.C. Jobs Minister Pat Bell is set to arrive in the village on Friday to help the community with its "economic transition." More than anything, the workers and their families want to know how he can convince the mill's owners, Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates, to rebuild.

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But as he drives along Highway 16 toward the village, Mr. Bell can't ignore what the people of Burns Lake know all too well: The forest around them is dead or dying. This is the epicentre of the pine beetle epidemic. Any company willing to spend $30-million or more to build a new mill will want assurances that the timber will keep coming for decades. And unless the government is prepared to change the rules, such a commitment seems unlikely.

"Hill after hill after hill of red and grey trees" is how MaryAnne Arcand remembers her last drive over resource roads south of Burns Lake. "Some of them just big matchsticks. You feel really vulnerable."

Ms. Arcand is executive director of the Central Interior Logging Association. In addition to the 280 direct mill jobs, she noted, there are another 500 independent contractors – loggers and truckers – who worked at supplying timber to the mill.

The contractors are not eligible for employment insurance, so she has spent the week drumming up work for them with other employers in the region.

Fortunately for those workers, there are still seven big mills in the area, including Canfor's Houston operation, which boasts the biggest sawmill output in the world. Ms. Arcand has come up with dozens of jobs already for buncher operators, haulers, skidder operators and stump-to-dump contractors.

Babine Forest Products also has something going for it: the rights to about half a million cubic metres of wood per year that it can sell to the highest bidder. And there is a market for the wood.

But that cash asset is there regardless of whether the owners rebuild. The mills along Highway 16 are already competing for timber. And the falldown – when the annual allowable cut will have to be reduced and the pine beetle-killed wood is no longer merchantable timber – is coming.

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The province's chief forester, Jim Snetsinger, is working on a technical report for Forests Minister Steve Thomson on the timber supply in the mountain pine beetle zones. The review looks at whether the mills in the region can be kept open if B.C. lifts constraints on the land base that were established under the Harcourt government in the 1990s.

"With the urgent situation in Burns Lake, a lot of the work we had been doing for the region is going to be part of that discussion," Mr. Thomson said in an interview Thursday. "This has accelerated some of the work we need to do."

The Association of BC Professional Foresters is worried the falldown will lead to an excuse to gut the region's longstanding land-use plans. In a submission to the chief forester last November, they warned against "making short-term tradeoffs" against the long-term health of these battered forests.

Further, the association is warning that freeing up more timber is not the solution: "Changing management requirements would not prevent mill closures. Rather, it will just postpone the inevitable falldown in timber supply."

Bob Simpson, the Independent MLA for Cariboo North, said the government can't stall on this question anymore. "The chief forester and the Forests Minister must immediately answer the question of whether a long-term timber supply exists for this mill," he said, "so at least this one issue can be clarified in the deliberations about the feasibility of rebuilding the mill."

A lasting solution – which the people of Burns Lake sorely need – will require confronting the problem that the government has been evading for a decade.

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