PRINCE GEORGE (NEWS1130) – A man has died after that massive explosion and fire at the Lakeland Sawmill in Prince George last night.

BC Coroners Service says Alan Little, 43, of Prince George was one of 25 people who were working at the mill when a explosion and fire ripped through it around 9:40 p.m. He worked as a shift supervisor.

Little died from his injuries at the University Hospital of Northern BC around 5:30 a.m.

Northern Health confirms of 24 of the patients have been treated; three were flown to hospital in Vancouver, 13 have been released and six are still in hospital in Prince George in serious but stable condition.

Brian Croy was meeting with workers in the mill’s lunchroom when the floor lifted up and the walls came down around him.

“It was so thick with smoke that I couldn’t breath. I actually thought that maybe that was the end of me. If the flames didn’t get me, the smoke would,” explains Croy. “I managed to stick my head in my coat and catch some air, get up and managed to see an opening.”

Many workers had to scramble to help each other after the blast. One worker says he had to use scissors to cut charred clothing off those with severely burned skin.

Ambulances from Vanderhoof had to be brought in to deal with all the injuries.

The explosion was so big, a large part of the mill was on fire within minutes.

Prince George Fire Chief John Lane says crews could only hope to save other portions of the mill.

“We’ve pretty much cut the fire off from the planer portion but the sawmill portion is a complete loss.”

Matt Porteous works at 94X FM in Prince George and heard the explosion.

“I was at my house, which is about 10 blocks away from the Lakeland Mills scene and the explosion was large enough that it shook my house. Originally I thought it was an earthquake.”

Porteous adds there were some smaller explosions after the initial one. “Fortunately the mill is located in an industrial area, so there aren’t a lot of families that are really close to it.”
The mill directly employs about 170 people. Fifty were on site last night and police say all of them have been accounted for.

Cause and Investigation

No word yet what caused the blast but a province-wide investigation has been launched with a specific focus. Roberta Ellis with WorkSafe BC says orders have been given to every sawmill.

“I’m directing that they conduct a full hazard identification, risk assessment, and safety review, and we’re asking them to focus on combustible dust and dust and ignition sources,” Ellis says.  “The site itself will likely not be accesible to us for a few days yet.”

Ellis says it is possible there is a link between the explosion in Prince George and January’s in Burns Lake, but the connection has yet to be made.

Cariboo-North MLA Bob Simpson says it is far too early to know but he has heard anecdotal evidence from the Burns Lake explosion that killed two.

“The processing of these long-dead mountain pine beetle logs is creating a fine dust with some resins in it that is becoming highly combustible material,” Simpson says.

He says that flammable dust sits in the air, also coating mill equipment, and can be sparked by heavy machinery. Simpson says it is too early to be sure but if it is a problem, some sort of safety system is needed before something like this happens again.

“It is highly unusual for British Columbia to have two mill explosions of this catastrophic nature with very hot fires that burn the mills right to the ground,” Simpson adds.

BC’s Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid echoes Simpson’s concern.  She confirms sawdust will be examined as part of a province-wide investigation. Ellis, though, says pine beetle logs have been harvested for a decade in BC without these types of events.