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Former mill employees go looking for work outside Burns Lake

Burns Lake, B.C. Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012.

Jonathan Hayward/ The Globe and Mail/Jonathan Hayward/ The Globe and Mail

Burns Lake residents will have to fan out across the region to find work after a fire destroyed a mill that was the town's main employer, but they shouldn't have to abandon the community, B.C.'s jobs minister says.

Pat Bell said that while the province makes the case to the owners for rebuilding the sawmill that burned on Jan. 20, the 280 direct employees and others affected should be able to commute to jobs within an hour of the small town about 200 kilometres east of Prince George.

Mr. Bell, visiting the community on Friday, acknowledged an hour's commute is a long distance in the region.

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"But I think people are willing to consider that sort of transportation initiative and continue to retain their homes," he told a news conference. "I heard that message very clearly in the rooms today that I was in."

Earlier this week, Mr. Bell was more bullish, suggesting replacement employment might be found "in town or out of town."

He said workers fanning out might be able to sustain Burns Lake.

Mr. Bell said companies across the north have promised to help, and a jobs fair is planned.

He also announced that forestry consultant Bob Clark will work in Burns Lake to help co-ordinate the province's response to the crisis.

Safety experts are investigating whether a buildup of wood dust caused the blast that killed two men and injured 19 others.

The B.C. Coroners Service confirmed on Friday that the two killed were 45-year-old Robert Luggi and Carl Charlie, 42. Both were found near the edge of the debris field at the operation.

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Mr. Bell said the province is looking at the timber supply of the region to make the case to the mill's owners, Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates, to rebuild the operation.

"Our goal is to at least be able to provide Hampton, within a four- or five-week period of what the outlook might be and what the possibilities are," said Mr. Bell.

"I do have a high degree of confidence that there's fibre in the region that can be managed in an appropriate way for all of the operations throughout the region."

It would cost $30-million or more to replace the mill, which was opened in 1975 as a joint venture with local first nations.

Prince George MLA John Rustad, working with Mr. Bell, said the Burns Lake region could diversify into mining opportunities, and the province is investigating whether wood waste could be converted to biofuels in the area.

Elsewhere on the forestry front, the province announced Friday that, for the first time, private investors will be able to obtain carbon credits for replanting Crown land damaged by pine beetle, wildfires and other factors unrelated to commercial timber harvesting.

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To date, harvesting companies and the province have been at the forefront of such efforts, said Forests Minister Steve Thomson.

NDP forestry critic Bill Routley said the government effort was overdue given the duration of the pine-beetle crisis. In response, Mr. Thomson said the government took its time because it wanted to get the rules right.

"The protocols had to be solid," he said.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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