More than 70 years of the Willems family’s business came to a halt as fire destroyed the Lumby mill Friday.
An RCMP officer driving along Highway 6 spotted the blaze at Willems Forest Products at 3:20 a.m. Friday, Oct. 16, according to owner Lorne Willems.
The fire burned all but one wall of the building to the ground, destroying equipment and damaging parts.
“It was fully engulfed right when we arrived,” Lumby Fire Chief Tony Clayton said. “Total loss of the building.”
But thanks to the efforts of firefighters, the root of the business was spared.
“The main mill is still functional,” Willems said.
And because of that, the third generation Willems, who owns the mill with his wife, has already started rebuilding.
“I’m very grateful to the police and the fire department, they did an incredible job. They were here before I could drive from Coldstream,” said the owner, whose grandfather started the business in 1947. “The amount of equipment they threw on this fire really made the difference between me being able to start up.
“They basically saved my butt.”
Due to the high costs of mill insurance, Willems was not insured, therefore he is paying out of pocket for everything. He estimates the damage to be about $100,000.
Yet, he hasn’t laid off any of his employees: five full and one part-time (two of which are his own sons). Instead, the crew is busy rebuilding and racing to get something up before snow falls.
“I’m hoping to be back up and running in a month,” said the father of six. “But realistically if I’m running before Christmas I think I’ll be happy.”
But the rebuild is going to be tough on the Willems family. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help the business get back on its feet. A goal of $50,000 has been set, and Willems admits, “I’ll take all the help I can get I’m all out of pocket for all of it.”
The family has been in Lumby since 1930, when Willems’ grandfather (a teamster) came to the area from Saskatchewan.
“When the depression hit the Lumby area was actually doing quite well and he heard they were looking for teamsters.”
At that time, Lumby had several mills, including a large sawmill at the bottom of Trinity Valley Road.
“Even where Tim Hortons is now that was the Bell Sawmill,” said Willems, also noting Weyerhaeuser, Bell Pole, Lumby Timber Products, and where the boarded-up motel is now that used to be a box plant and sawmill.
“We go way back here,” Willems said.
The Willems family started with portable sawmills in 1947.
“Some of that equipment that he had back in 1947 is still working here today.”
The family also started the much larger mill across Highway 6 in 1957, which is now Tolko. The small mill that was destroyed by fire Oct. 16, 2020, has been at its current location since 1992.
The fire is not believed to be suspicious, according to Fire Chief Clayton.
Fire investigators told Willems the blaze was electrical and sparked around 2-2:15 a.m.
No one was at the site at the time of the fire, therefore no injuries were sustained.
The cause is a relief to Willems, who after having been in the community for so long, would hate to think that arson could have been a factor.
But having run a mill for so long, Willems knows fires are inevitable in the industry.
“If you are going to be in the sawmill business you are inevitably going to have fires.”