A fire early this morning destroyed the main building at the Meadow Creek Forest Products sawmill at Cooper Creek. There is no word yet on the cause or the total damage estimate.
Dwayne Ciulka, who lives about about a kilometer away, said he heard “a horrendous explosion that shook the house” at about 2:40 a.m. and the power flickered.
He said the building with the debarker, green chain, and saws burned to the ground, although a warehouse, planer, office, kiln, and scales are still standing.
Robyn Sedan, whose house is about 500 feet (150 m) away, said a “really loud bang” woke her up. She walked into her living room and could see a red glow from her deck. Afterward, she said there were three or four more explosions. Sedan and her husband, who is the electrician at the mill, had a suitcase packed in case they had to leave.
“There was a lot of burning bark falling on my house and deck,” she said. “My car is covered in ashes. So is my yard and deck.”
About a dozen people were employed at the mill, which restarted this year following a three-year closure. However, Sedan is not fearful they will now be out of work. “I think if anything it might be a blessing because they can put a better mill there,” she said. “The mill opening up was such a good thing for the community.”
Company executive Inder Johal said in an email that he had only just learned of the fire. “I’ve been told that our CEO is boarding a flight and making his way over,” he said.
Kaslo RCMP Cpl. Shaun Begg said when police arrived, the mill was fully engulfed by the blaze, which continued for several hours.
While that there was a rudimentary fire suppression system on site, it was hampered by cold weather, and despite the efforts of mill workers, there was no way to stop the flames.
Begg says investigators will return to the site today when the scene cools down to try to determine the fire’s origin, which is not believed to be suspicious.
The area has no formal fire protection. Regional District of Central Kootenay fire chief Terry Swan said he received a call early this morning requesting that the Kaslo fire department respond, but he declined permission.
“It’s about a 45-minute drive and I had a report that it was fully involved,” he said. “I have a duty to Kaslo and area taxpayers to ensure they have service. Essentially I had to tell Kaslo you can’t go and to let it burn.”
The northern limit of the Kaslo fire service area is south of Lardeau.
Swan said in considering whether to dispatch a fire department beyond its boundaries, he look at several factors, including whether lives or infrastructure are threatened, and whether there is a risk of wildfire. He said none of those things applied in this case.
Although he had few specific details about the fire, he was comfortable saying no one was hurt, as Kaslo assistant fire chief Larry Badry was on shift with BC Ambulance and was sent to the site on standby. “When I talked to him this morning, he said they didn’t have to treat or transport anyone,” Swan said.
The Office of the Fire Commissioner will be investigating. Commissioner Gord Anderson said in a statement that they will work with the BC Safety Authority and WorkSafeBC.
“Each agency would determine any potential for prosecution based upon the outcome of the overall investigation,” he said.
His office will focus on determining the fire’s cause and, if possible, identifying any fire code breaches.
Pastor Len Trenholm brought a pumper trailer from Meadow Creek to prevent the fire from spreading to neighbouring structures. The unit is one of three in the Lardeau Valley, which each hold 300 gallons (1,135 litres). The second unit is stored at Cooper Creek, a short distance from the mill, and the third is kept at Howser.
Trenholm said the regional district bought them about eight years ago, and they have been put to good use extinguishing grass fires. However, in this case the pump was frozen, so there wasn’t much he could do except watch the mill burn.
“They put a lot of money into the mill, and this is going to halt production,” Trenholm said. “In the long term it might turn out for the good, if they come up with a better mill. But if it stays closed, it’s almost a death knell for the valley. We just hope it’s not the end for us but a beginning.”
Rural Kaslo regional director Andy Shadrack said he has been in touch with MLAs and MPs about the fire. “I’m concerned about people’s income and ability to support themselves,” he said.
San Group of Surrey bought the mill along with the Meadow Creek Cedar timber license this past spring. Under its previous owner, the mill was cited by WorkSafeBC for numerous safety violations.
Meadow Creek Forest Products is being sued by a logging contractor and woodlot owner who claim they are owed money.