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Milling mountain pine beetle wood may pose fire risk

There may be something about logs that come from mountain pine beetle killed trees that's caused explosions and fires at two British Columbia sawmills, Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson said today.

"There is growing anecdotal evidence that MPB killed logs may be producing combustible materials that interior sawmills were not designed to address," said a prepared statement from Simpson, who sits as an independent.

He made the comments after an April 23 fire at the Lakeland Mill in Prince George, which killed one worker and injured 24. In January an explosion and fire destroyed the Babine Forest Products mill in Burns Lake and killed two workers.

While it's too early to say what caused the explosions and fires, Simpson said, "It is highly unusual to have two mills explode and burn down like this . . . For that reason, we should take precautions to carefully examine if something substantially different is occurring as a result of processing these MPB logs."

Fine dust and dry resins coming off dry mountain pine beetle logs may be a safety hazard and there are stories about equipment used to grind the logs catching fire, he said.

"WorkSafe is responsible for worker safety across British Columbia," said Justice Minister Shirley Bond, who represents Prince George-Valemount. "If there is anything that is necessary to be shared as a result for example of the Burns Lake circumstance, it is important that information be shared expeditiously and obviously we're awaiting those recommendations."

The Coroner's office and the fire commissioner are also investigating, she said.

"The safety of workers is a priority for us in British Columbia, but today is a day for caring for the families and the employees that have been injured here," she said. "We're not going to speculate today."

The NDP's caucus chair Shane Simpson expressed gratitude to the emergency responders and said his concerns are with the families and the community. "In terms of the longer view of this, we certainly will be encouraging the government to get WorkSafe BC to expedite this investigation as quickly as possible to determine . . . what the factors there were that may have been a root cause for this explosion."

If those factors exist in other mills, steps should obviously be taken to prevent future incidents, he said.

Update, April 25, 2012, 10:30 a.m.: A second worker, 46-year-old Glenn Francis Roche, has died following the explosion and fire at the Lakeland sawmill. The government also released the name of the first person to die, Alan Little, who was 43 years old.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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