When the crew at Larry Simpson’s sawmill finished up last Tuesday, they didn’t know that within 48 hours the mill would be reduced to scorched metal and cinders.

The cause of the fire at the small Tete-Jaune mill is still unknown, and Simpson can’t guess what may have started it, since it hadn’t operated in two days, and the cause is unlikely to be electrical. Simpson only knows what family and friends on scene told him, as he and his wife were out of town with their grandchildren.

Art and Shelly Mainprize saw the smoke billowing up into the sky from their home around 8:30 p.m. last Thursday. Art says he was “just drifting off” in his armchair when Shelly pointed out the ominous black cloud. They jumped in the car and on the road they met two other neighbours – Al Brady and Jason Cinnamon – who had also seen the smoke.

Art says when they arrived at the mill site, which is adjacent the Simpson’s residence, they expected to find someone around.

“You don’t expect to be the first on scene,” he said.

He says they stood there dumbfounded for 30 seconds, and then “got the ball rolling.”

He ran to a neighbour’s house and called 911. Cinnamon and Tete-Jaune firefighter Mike Lewis moved nearby equipment, loaders and a forklift, out of harm’s way. They also unhooked the generator and skidded it away from the fire.

Simpson had a water truck parked next to the mill as a safety precaution and Shelly Mainprize and Al Brady used his fire tank to pump water on the fire until Valemount resident Bill Tinsley arrived with his water truck.

The local volunteer department does not respond to calls in Tete-Jaune, but the provincial fire fighting crew and Tinsley both arrived on scene within the hour.

Tinsley, Linda Simpson’s brother, had just gotten off standby from his work with forestry, and fortunately his truck was still full of water.

More residents joined the scene to help where they could, until several dozen people crowded the site. The Tete-Jaune community fire crew turned out to help man the hoses.

Luckily, no one was hurt during the fire and it didn’t spread, despite the dry, hot weather. The mill site continued to smoke for more than a day. Art Mainprize notes that Jackman Flats Provincial Park borders the property, and it’s full of beetle kill pine that could easily catch fire.

The Simpson’s have endured several fires in the past years, including their house and a cabin.

“I can’t take much more,” said Linda Simpson, who was camping with her husband and their grandchildren near Salmon Arm when the fire broke out.

Larry Simpson says he didn’t have any insurance on the mill, which he set up only one year ago under his and his son’s company Simpson & Son Contracting. They get their logs, primarily Douglas Fir, from the Valemount Community Forest, and they cut to order for customers in Prince George, McBride, Vancouver and the oil patch. Three workers and a number of contractors help fill the part-time work he gets through these contracts – often for bridge timbers.

Simpson says it will probably take $100,000 to get back what he lost.

“There’s very little to salvage,” he says. “The expensive stuff is gone – the electrical and hydraulics.”

Even his torch burned so he has to buy a new one before he can start taking apart the mill piece by piece.

While working at Hauer Bros. mill in Tete-Jaune for 35 years, he says he saw several mill fires and that’s why he kept the fire truck nearby to be cautious.

“It wasn’t a big thing to a lot of people, but it was to us. It was our life now. What do you say? What do you do? Try ‘er again, I guess.”

He says whether it was an accident or arson doesn’t change the outcome now. He hopes to buy a new mill and have it operating “by the time the snow flies.”

“It’s pretty heartbreaking all right,” he says. “But I’m not quite ready to give up yet.”