Dry wood killed by the mountain pine beetle may be to blame for two explosions at British Columbia sawmills, according to investigators there, but local timber industry representatives say similar scenarios are unlikely in the Black Hills.
An April 23 explosion at a Prince George, British Columbia, sawmill killed four and injured dozens, rattling the timber-industry-based town. That followed a January explosion in Burns Lake, British Columbia, that injured 19.
The region’s Workers’ Compensation Agency is investigating the role the mountain pine beetle may have played in the explosions.
Authorities say the beetle infestation severely dries the wood, producing a fine dust that can be highly explosive.
“People don’t know that dust with a low moisture content and high surface area is highly combustible. Workers don't have time to react. It’s not like a smoldering fire that gets bigger,” Wayne Winkler, an engineer for the Vancouver company Briquetting Systems, said in an interview with the Vancouver Sun.
The pine beetle is killing thousands of trees around the Black Hills, and much of that wood is being cut before the trees die or soon after.
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Matt Swanson, Rushmore Forest Products plant superintendent, said he heard the news about the explosions in Canada. With those dried-out trees, the dust gets into the air. He said “in a green log, the dust wouldn’t be floating in air.”
The majority of wood his plant cuts is beetle killed or just ahead of the beetle, but he said the wood has not caused an increased danger in his plant.
Bill Coburn, procurement forester with Neiman Timber Co., said the wood being used in British Columbia has been dead for several years. The beetle-killed wood cut in the Black Hills is either recently dead or still infested, so the dust is not as heavy.
“Our biggest limitation is trying to use as many of the infested trees as possible,” Coburn said.
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