A fire and explosion Wednesday at a Quesnel mill could have been catastrophic and deadly, says Al Johnson, Vice President of Prevention Field Services for WorkSafeBC.

Thirty workers inside West Fraser’s WestPine MDF plant were evacuated safely.

It took crews almost five hours to put out the fire.

Potential for serious injuries, death

“There was the potential here for being catastrophic,” said Johnson. “We’re very fortunate there were no injuries. There was a potential for workers to be seriously injured or worse.”

A critical incident response team was sent to Quesnel to offer emotional support.

“[The explosion] will resonate with people and possibly bring back memories of explosions in mills that have occurred in the past,” said Johnson.

2012 mill explosions killed 4, injured 43 

Four B.C. mill workers were killed and 43 others seriously injured in 2012 after sawmill explosions in Burns Lake and Prince George just three months apart.

Investigators determined wood dust was to blame for the tragedies.

Johnson says wood dust could also be a factor in the most recent incident in Quesnel.

‘Wood dust present’

There is wood dust present, so there may be an association. We haven’t drawn any conclusions.- WorkSafeBC Vice President Al Johnson

“It’s too early to say at this point, but obviously there’s indicators this explosion and fire occurred in the fibre bin area.

It has four dust collection towers where there is wood dust present, so there may be an association,” said Johnson. “But we haven’t drawn any conclusions at this point.”

Johnson says it’s important to note the 2012 explosions occurred in sawmills, while the Quesnel mill produces medium density fibreboard.

“This mill has wood dust and wood fibres, like the sawmills. But it also uses high temperatures, high pressure chemicals.”

“Without question, it was a major explosion and fire,” said Quesnel mayor Bob Simpson who has worked in mill management.

Johnson says WorkSafe’s investigation to determine what happened could take months.

Damage closes mill

In the meantime, West Fraser says the Quesnel mill will be closed until the damage to the WestPine MDF plant is fixed.

“The facility will not be operational for a period of time,” said Tara Knight, a spokeswoman for West Fraser.

“Our employees remain employed and are needed to return the mill to operation.