BURNS LAKE — Burns Lake fire chief Jim McBride knew it was serious when he saw the glow on the horizon from Babine Forest Products even as he was driving through a blinding snowstorm.
"I won't repeat what I said to myself in the truck," McBride testified Tuesday at a coroner's inquest into the Jan. 20, 2012 explosion that killed two men – Robert Luggi, 45, and Carl Charlie, 42 – and injured 19 others, many of whom suffered significant burns.
McBride and nearly 30 members of the volunteer fire department were called to the scene shortly after 8 p.m.
With so little traffic, McBride drove with only his warning lights on, but the snowfall was so thick, he had to turn them off because they were reflecting in the snow.
When he arrived at a marshalling area at the south end of the mill's property, he found "the whole of the sawmill itself was ablaze from one end to the other."
Given the size of the blaze, McBride decided the best that could be done was to give up on the sawmill itself and concentrate on trying to save a section jutting to the south.
Firetrucks hooked up to hydrants and were pumping about 1,000 gallons a minute, but by about midnight, they had run out of water.
Daylight the next morning revealed a smouldering tangle of steel frozen in ice and snow as the temperature continued to hover around -20 C.
McBride recalled a "chaotic" scene when he arrived.
"I can remember standing there and this one individual running toward me and he fell in the snow," McBride said.
"I started to move towards him to lend him whatever assistance I could, to help him up, and he just said 'don't touch me, don't touch me, I'm burnt.'"
A paramedic arrived just behind McBride to tend to the man, who had suffered severe burns to his back.
Although the department's area of responsibility is limited to an eight-kilometre radius of the fire hall, McBride said there had been a "gentlemen's agreement" to respond to calls from Babine as well as from Decker Lake Forest Products, located on the other side of Burns Lake, because they were the community's two largest employers.
Following the blast, a formal agreement to respond to calls was put in place. However, McBride said he still does not have authority to conduct fire safety inspections at the two mills, both owned by Oregon-based Hampton Affiliates.
Under questioning from United Steelworkers counsel Diane Irvine, McBride said that from what he had seen of Babine during calls prior to the explosion, it was "dusty, extremely dusty" and agreed he told WorkSafeBC investigators that he called the conditions "atrocious."
McBride said that because the mill is located on native-owned land, it was subject to regulation under the national fire code which is enforced by the federal fire marshall.
"And I might add that in the 17 years I've occupied this position here in Burns Lake, I've met him once," McBride said.