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 The supply of green wood has been replaced by standing dead trees left behind as beetles move on to new food supplies.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.

Related Care2 Stories

Administration Releases New Blueprint for National Forests

Trees Have Needs: Learning from the Lorax

Tree Death Rates Double in Old-Growth Forests


Photo of explosion from video posted by DANGLER76; photo of beetle-killed trees from V Smoothe via Flickr Creative Commons


William C
William C5 months ago

Thanks for the information.

W. C
W. C5 months ago

Thank you for the information.

Rosie Lopez
Rosie Lopez5 years ago

thanks for sharing

Nancy L.
Nancy L5 years ago

Funny how when a winter is extra warm people claim climate change, and when it's unseasonably cold like 2 years ago, they claim that's also caused by global warming. WTH?

Elizabeth M.
Elizabeth M5 years ago

My deepest sympathies to all the families that lost loved ones to these explosions.

Sawdust is very unsafe, and especially when cutting trees that were dryed out from the beetle infestations. I am interested in knowing if the huge sawdust piles were constantly being watered down, and if they become extremely hot? If watering down would have helped stop the inferno??
Thank you for posting and the video Cathryn.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W5 years ago

Thanks for the article, a really interesting

nicola w.
Jane H5 years ago

The insect world and the impact of a warming earth will have huge consequences on us - malaria and dengue fever zones are growing ,cricket plagues , ticks and lyme disease, termites , aphids and diseases in bee colonies...we have NO idea how insects run our planet and harvest plants we rely on .
If all we can think of is pesticide - we will be cactus.

Michael C.
Michael C5 years ago

Lydia P. While I agree with your fundamental sense of idealism, all the rest is in the clouds.
As far as nature recycling the dead, it is often referred to as...forest fires."

As for you last sentence, I can only say...WOW!

Stephanie Hungerford

They can soak the wood before milling to cut down on the dust. I believe we should harvest the dead trees at let the green ones live on.

Steve R.
Steve R5 years ago

What a load of crap!

I'll tell you what caused the explosions - human error and negligence - nothing more, nothing less!

Stop trying to blame every little thing on climate change! Climate change may be a reality - but responsible for sawmill explosions????

Get real!