B.C. announces Burns Lake recovery team after mill fire

About 250 employees of the Burns Lake mill that was destroyed in an explosion have been given one last extra paycheque by the company before they will have to line up for EI.

Mill workers 1 paycheque away from EI

Residents of Burns Lake, B.C., must figure out how to survive without the village's largest employer 2:05

The B.C. government has announced the formation of a rapid response team to help with economic development after a Burns Lake mill was destroyed in an explosion last week.

On Tuesday, the province announced Minister of Jobs Tourism and Innovation Pat Bell would lead the province's recovery plan.

The government says the rapid response team will work with the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako, the Village of Burns Lake, the Burns Lake Native Development Corp. and others to "provide economic development and community transition expertise as part of the local response effort. "

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"We need to work quickly and collaboratively with the community to develop a plan to support Burns Lake, its families and workers when the immediate crisis has eased," said Bell.

"My ministry is leading government's efforts to stabilize the community and see the community's economic development objectives achieved."

Nechako Lakes Liberal MLA John Rustad said the government is working with the owners of the Babine Forest Products mill on rebuilding.

"The loss of life and injuries resulting from this fire have been shocking for residents. We want to return hope to this important northern community," he said.

"The Burns Lake community has my commitment that I will work with its leaders, industry stakeholders, First Nations and our government to find the best solutions for its new future."

'One of the lucky ones'

The mill, which was the region's largest employer, was destroyed by an explosion and fire on Friday that killed two people and injured 19 others.

Two people remain in critical condition at Vancouver General Hospital and two others are in stable condition. Workers are also being treated at hospitals in Victoria, Edmonton, Prince George and Vanderhoof. Eight injured mill workers have been released from hospital.

Syd Neville, who was airlifted to a Vancouver hospital after sustaining third-degree burns to his face, thighs and back, says he's feeling upbeat since the explosion.

"From what I seen, from where I was standing, it was a very big explosion," he said. " So every coworker, every person, I seen after that was very uplifting. I've been in very good spirits because I feel like one of the lucky ones."

Neville said he's been overwhelmed by the support from his co-workers and community.

1 last paycheque

On Monday night , company officials told the town it was too soon to say if the mill will be rebuilt. About 250 employees have been given one last extra paycheque before they will have to line up for EI.

Provincial government officials say half a dozen public agencies are already working to help community residents. WorkSafeBC has staff in Burns Lake processing injury claims and the Northern Health Authority has grief counsellors working in the community.

The United Steelworkers Union is paying for flights and hotels so families can be with injured workers, and mill workers across the region are donating money through payroll deductions, according to president Frank Everitt.

Burns Lake has also issued a challenge to fill the local legion hall  floor to ceiling with non-perishable food and a Lakes District Tragedy Fund has been set up to help. Donations can be made through any CIBC branch in B.C.

Burns Lake resident Valid Kennedy speaks to a community meeting on Monday night, asking, "Why does it takes this kind of thing to wake Victoria up?" (Wil Fundal/CBC)

"It's certainly overwhelming, the responses coming in. You know people are good, but you don't know how great the feeling is when they extend that — to help out in such a crisis," said Everitt.

Wait is 'heartbreaking'

On Monday evening, frustrated residents packed into a community meeting demanding to know whether the smouldering remains of the sawmill would be rebuilt.

With roughly 350 people in town suddenly out of work, including those working on contracts with the mill, many at the packed meeting expressed concerns Burns Lake will become a ghost town unless quick action is taken to rebuild.

"It's really heartbreaking, waiting, waiting. Why does it take this kind of stuff for you guys to really act and listen to the grassroots people?" Keith Thomas asked the panel of company and government officials at the front of the room.

Others worried people will lose their homes if the mill does not reopen.

"We don't want to see people lose their houses because they can't afford to make their payments in this community over a tragedy which has happened," one local business owner told the meeting.

Company uncommitted

A new mill could cost the owners, Hampton Forest Industries, anywhere from $25 to $100 million, and the company has said very little about intentions so far.

CEO Steve Zika says the company will have to consider several factors along with the cost and an estimated 18-month timeframe for construction and getting permits.

Wilf Adam, chief of the Lake Babine Nation, says if Hampton Forest Industries does not rebuild, the First Nation will step up.

"I still believe that this is a viable operation and the lifeline of the community. If they are not going to step up to the plate, we will. We will spearhead rebuilding the plant," Adam said.

"There are many issues that we are waiting for, like the insurance company and looking at the whole situation, but the end goal is to rebuild."