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A View of Lakeland Sawmill explosion site seen from a helicopter in Prince George, B.C., Tuesday, April 24, 2012.

Brent Braaten/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Safety inspectors will be checking B.C. sawmills this week for dangerous levels of combustible dust after two deadly mill explosions, while the provincial government is poised to address the other crisis facing the forest industry – a dwindling supply of wood because of the mountain pine beetle.

Tensions are mounting about the government's proposal to free up protected forests to logging, a plan conceived to respond to the first explosion in Burns Lake three months ago.

The unprecedented safety inspections were ordered based on suspicions that processing dry wood killed by pine beetles is creating a more combustible dust in sawmills, putting workers at risk across B.C.'s northern and Interior communities. The cause of the explosions at Burns Lake in January and last week at the Lakeland Mill in Prince George has not been determined, but both were cutting large amounts of beetle-killed logs.

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Before the explosions, which killed four men and injured dozens more, those forestry-dependent communities were already facing concerns about what will happen when the beetle wood runs out.

In a bid to persuade the owners of the Babine Forest Products mill to rebuild in Burns Lake, the government is patching together a plan to offer the company a long-term supply of timber by eyeing trees that have until now been off limits for logging: old growth, wildlife corridors or tourism assets.

Environmentalists, professional foresters and mayors are raising concerns that the government's rush to fix the problem in Burns Lake will come at a cost to other mills and to the sustainability of B.C. forests.

Mayors from Vanderhoof, Fort St. James, Fraser Lake, Houston and Smithers are calling on Premier Christy Clark to put the brakes on the proposal to free up timber supply for a new mill in Burns Lake.

"We want to be supportive of the community of Burns Lake," said Vanderhoof Mayor Gerry Thiessen, whose first job out of high school was in a sawmill. "But we all know there is a limited fibre base; we have to understand how that will affect other communities. There have been some huge changes because of the mountain pine beetle; there is a need for an in-depth inventory."

The Association of BC Forest Professionals is ramping up lobbying efforts to warn against what it calls "making short-term tradeoffs" at the expense of the long-term health of the forests that would do nothing more than postpone mill closings.

The Canadian Institute of Forestry has waded into the debate as well. "We respectfully recommend caution and careful thought for any changes contemplated on public forested lands," president Mark Kube states in a letter to Forests Minister Steve Thomson dated April 26. The association is calling for professional evaluations before changing any harvesting rules.

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But the province is eager to come up with a way to get the Burns Lake mill rebuilt quickly. "The urgency is accelerated," Mr. Thomson said in an interview. "With the impact of the mountain pine beetle, we have difficult decisions ahead of us. There will be controversy attached, but we also know the solutions have to be for the total region. It's not just for Burns Lake."

Liberal MLA John Rustad has been tasked to explain the proposed changes to forestry communities – many in his Nechako Lakes riding. "The guiding principle is there is no point kicking the can down the road. We won't take wood from another community."

He said the fears are reasonable and the government will need to come up with an intensive consultation process, adding that it will not be lengthy. "Every month that goes by is a lost opportunity to rebuild," he said.

Bob Simpson, the Independent MLA for Cariboo North, said the timber supply crisis brought into focus because of the two mill explosions had been neglected.

"The government has created its own perfect storm, because they kept trying to pretend somehow this would work out." Now the province can't even persuade communities that it knows what wood is left to share.

Mr. Simpson says the people of Burns Lake should be offered a chance to do something different, to make a transition to a more sustainable forest industry working with local hardwood, or feeding international demand for biomass fuel. "You can't be a sawmilling town forever. But the government is pretending the status quo can continue."

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