Following tragic and devastating explosions and fires at two British Columbia sawmills in Burns Lake and Prince George that killed four workers and injured dozens, leave it to EarthFirst! on its official news site to put a morbid, anti-human perspective on the destruction: “In any case, there’s two less mills in the world. For now, we say bravo to the beetle.”
Of course, EarthFirst! has no credibility whatsoever on any issue in the real world, but what’s this about the beetle?
While full in-depth investigations on the two fires are yet to be completed, preliminary reports are filled with speculation that somehow the beetle-damaged timber being processed by both mills was in large part responsible for the explosions due to the extreme dryness of the logs and the fine sawdust created during sawing.
Those who would like to see all sawmills shut down have already grabbed onto the mill explosion headlines and are spinning it their way, claiming that this is further proof that damaged and dead timber shouldn’t be utilized and should instead be left to rot—or more likely burn. (Never mind that uncontrollable wildfires in dead or distressed timber stands do untold damage to wildlife and water quality.)
But back to the beetle and the dust: The mountain pine bark beetle threat is definitely real, and impacting forests from Mexico to northern Canada. A recent report from International Wood Markets noted the beetle has already killed an estimated 59% of BC Interior pine forests, and 25% of the sawmills and plywood plants operating in BC in 2005 have since been shut down. According to a University of Colorado study, the damage in BC alone covers 13 million hectares (32 million acres).
Though many mills have been sawing beetle-damaged and killed timber for the better part of a decade, reports show much of the timber is now reaching a marginal state that’s not viable for processing.
In response to the two incidents, WorkSafe BC, a provincial occupational safety agency, ordered an immediate inspection for sawdust buildup at all BC sawmills. Investigators in preliminary reports have stated ignition sources in both the recent mill incidents appear to have been located at the conveyor level, where electrical and or mechanical equipment was in operation in areas contained by walls and equipment at a lower level of the mill below the main mill floor.
British Columbia’s major forest products manufacturers have also announced a formal task force to: quantify combustion risks for both green and dry sawdust; identify best practices for dust mitigation from other industries; develop an industry-wide auditable standard to provide independent assurance of mill safety; and undertake outreach to all province forest products manufacturers to boost safety at all facilities.
Until now, much of the regulation and mitigation of wood dust exposure has been focused on respiratory issues. Though the incidents in British Columbia are extremely rare (When’s the last time you heard of a sawmill green end “exploding”?), with the rise of dust-related incidents at fuel pellet mills, you can bet the government will be taking a much closer look at dust combustion in the future.