Sawmill Explosions Linked to Climate Change
Two died and 22 more were injured in an April 24th blast that ripped through the Lakeland sawmill in Prince George, British Columbia. In the immediate aftermath, the most important issues were how to comfort grieving families and how to deal with the sudden loss of one of the town’s major employers. But questions about climate change’s part in the disaster are surfacing.
The Prince George RCMP Media Relations Officer reported 49 workers were in Lakeland Mills when an explosion ripped through the plant around 9:45 p.m. The 25 in the planer mill escaped uninjured. The rest suffered injuries ranging from smoke inhalation to severe burns.
Workers in the province’s timber industry have reason to be nervous. Lakeland was the second northern B.C. sawmill to explode in two months. The first was Babine Forest Products outside of Burns Lake, B.C. Two men died in that blast as well. Another 19 were injured. About 250 people, nearly ten percent of the small town’s population, were thrown out of work. Every family in the tight-knit community was affected.
Climate Change May Be the Cause
As investigators track down the cause of the blasts, they may find the mills and their workers were casualties of climate change. The level of dust in both mills was high.
Anyone who has worked in or around a mill knows sawdust is a constant hazard. Only thorough, daily cleaning of buildings and equipment keeps the risk to acceptable levels.
Or at least it did until northern B.C.’s winters stopped being cold and snowy enough to ensure healthy forests and keep the mountain pine beetle in check. Bitterly cold winters, when the temperature dips to -40° C, help contain the insect’s spread. So do strong trees. With diminishing snow packs, trees lack sufficient water to endure summer drought conditions. The weakened trees are attractive hosts for the beetles. Beetle-killed trees are dry. Dry timber generates much more sawdust.
WorkSafeBC Orders Safety Reviews
Beetle kill has ravaged forests in B.C. and beyond. The supply of green wood has been replaced by standing dead trees left behind as beetles move on to new food supplies. As the dry trees are milled, the quantity of sawdust increases and along with it the possibility of explosions.
WorkSafeBC’s response has been to take the unprecedented step of “issuing orders to all sawmill employers in B.C., directing them to conduct a full hazard identification, risk assessment, and safety review, with particular focus on combustible dust; dust accumulation; and potential ignition sources.”
The order does not mean WorkSafeBC has determined beetle-infested wood is to blame. It does mean that two similar explosions in three months are ringing alarm bells in an industry in flux.
Green, standing timber is in increasingly short supply. The only way mills can stay open and continue to employ workers in B.C.’s rural communities is by turning to the supply of beetle-killed wood.
All of the province’s sawmills are potentially at risk, as are those in Alberta, Montana, Wyoming and anywhere else where once-green stands of timber are now rust and grey reminders that adapting to climate change is not some challenge for the future. It is a reality for today.
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Photo of explosion from video posted by DANGLER76; photo of beetle-killed trees from V Smoothe via Flickr Creative Commons