British Columbia

'A community in crisis': 400 workers off the job as 3 mills go down in northern B.C. lumber town

The mayor of Mackenzie says her community is in "crisis" after hundreds of local residents lose work with the closure of three mills in one week.

More than 10% of workforce in Mackenzie, B.C., now unemployed

For years, logs harvested from forests in the Mackenzie area have been towed on the Williston Reservoir to local mills. (Andy Schlitt/Contributed )

More than 400 mill workers in Mackenzie, B.C., are out of work, after three mills closed in just one week in the lumber town north of Prince George.

The layoffs mean more than 10 per cent of locals are now unemployed, though some hope to be recalled within weeks. 

"We're a community in crisis. There's no other way to say it," said Mayor Joan Atkinson. 

In addition to the hundreds of mill layoffs, many loggers and contractors are also out of work.

Mill closures and curtailments are hitting B.C.'s lumber towns hard. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"I have a roller coaster of emotions," said Atkinson. "I'm very worried ... for the people in our community that need to have jobs. How are we going to help them through?"

And she fears things could get worse.

Atkinson says hundreds more people could yet be laid off, if Mackenzie's pulp mill goes down. That's because the pulp mill depends on material from Mackenzie's sawmills to operate.

"The sawmills produce the lumber and then the sawdust goes to our pulp mills ... But now that chain has been broken, so there's been  a domino effect," said the mayor.

Mackenzie's pulp mill is still operating. Mackenzie's mayor fears hundreds more people could be out of work if the pulp mill shuts down because it can't access the sawdust it needs from local mills. (MacKenzie Pulp Mill Corporation)

Canfor's temporary curtailment now indefinite

After a shutdown that was supposed to be temporary, Canfor suddenly closed its Mackenzie sawmill July 19, calling it an "indefinite curtailment."

In a written statement, the company said high log prices, poor lumber markets and "challenging operating conditions" made the mill uneconomic. 

Just three days later, Mackenzie's Conifex Timber sawmill sent about 150 workers home for a two week "temporary curtailment." 

Four days after that, Mackenzie's Parallel 55 finger joint mill shut down, because it couldn't get the trim end material it needs from local sawmills.

B.C. mills hit from Kelowna to Fort St. John

"This is a crisis in many small rural communities," said Atkinson.

The job cuts in Mackenzie come as 24 other mills across the B.C. Interior have laid off workers through plant closures or temporary curtailments.

Fort St. James declared a local state of financial crisis after a major mill closure this month.

The mayor of Clinton called closures there "a kick in the stomach."

'People are nervous'

But Mackenzie's mayor believes her community may be hardest hit.

"We are in a far worse position," said Atkinson. "People are nervous. We are very dependent on the forest industry." 

However, there is a glimmer of hope.

Atkinson says forestry officials have assured her that the community still has a "robust fibre supply." Although the timber supply has been affected by pine beetle and, more recently, spruce beetle infestations, it hasn't been hit by wildfire.

However, that doesn't change the high fibre costs or sagging demand that's driving mill closures.

1 in 6 B.C. mills could close, analyst says

Last week, Canfor posted a $50 million loss in the second quarter. A company release said Canfor expects more mill curtailments and closures in the B.C. Interior.  

Russ Taylor, a forest industry consultant with Wood Markets, predicts one in six B.C. mills will close, most of them within the next five years. 

He said only mills that attract investment and upgrades will survive.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Mackenzie's timber supply had not been affected by pine beetle infestation. In fact, the community's timber supply was depleted by the infestation.
    Jul 31, 2019 7:47 AM PT

About the Author

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener is an award-winning journalist and author. She's been covering the news in central and northern British Columbia for more than 15 years.

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