Two forestry giants announced Thursday they will close their sawmills in B.C.'s Interior next year β€” an announcement that affects over 400 workers in two B.C. communities.

Canfor said it will close its mill in Quesnel and West Fraser said it will shut down its operation in Houston.

hi-pine-beetle-852

The mountain pine beetle has infested over 18 million hectares of B.C. forest β€” the equivalent of about five Vancouver Islands.

Both companies say the closures are the result of the mountain pine beetle epidemic, which has wiped out vast portions of pine forests in the interior.

Don Kayne, president and CEO of Canfor Corporation, said the closure of the Quesnel mill is permanent.

β€œThe timber availability in the Quesnel region following the mountain pine beetle infestation unfortunately leaves us unable to continue operation of our Quesnel sawmill,” he said in a written statement.

Ted Seraphim, president and CEO of West Fraser, said the closure of the Houston mill is part of a larger plan his company has developed to stay viable and competitive.

"The mountain pine beetle devastation has and will continue to undermine the availability of merchantable timber in the interior of B.C. The shutdown of our Houston mill has been a difficult decision and we will work closely with the affected employees to support them through this process," he said in a written statement.

Mills to close in March 2014

Frank Everitt, president of the United Steelworkers union in northern BC., said more than two hundred workers at each mill are affected.

"Well, I think for both of those communities and our members it's going to be devastating news," he told CBC News.

He said that while rumours may have been going around, he certainly didn't expect the closures, or their announcement, to happen so soon.

"No matter how much people might have been in the know, certainly the majority of them didn't have any idea today was going to bring about some announcements," Everitt said.

The two mills are expected to close around March of next year.

Canfor said its 209 Quesnel-based employees will be offered positions elsewhere in the company. West Fraser said that it would be assisting its 225 Houston-based employees to transition into other West Fraser positions in B.C. and Alberta, "where possible."

The companies also said they have struck deals to exchange timber rights. Canfor will now take over forest tenures to support its mill in Houston, while West Fraser will acquire timber for its Quesnel sawmill.

With files from the CBC's Marissa Harvey