Old Sawmill Catches Fire, Forces Neighborhood Evacuation in Montana

MISSOULA (AP) -- A fire destroyed the old Idaho Timber Products mill near the downtown area, forcing evacuation of a nearby neighborhood as burning slabs of roofing material rained down early Tuesday.

The abandoned building was leveled. Officials said they didn't know what started the fire.

Firefighters were expected to remain at the scene for days, said Paul Muir, a battalion chief with Missoula's rural Fire District.

Area residents, some of whom abandoned their houses in the pre-dawn hours, were advised to avoid ash and debris from the building, which may contain asbestos.

''Testing is being conducted to determine whether asbestos is present in the ash,'' said Jan Scher, a Missoula County air-quality specialist.

Firefighters evacuated about 15 houses and put out fires that approached several backyards and buildings. Numerous spot fires also broke out in the neighborhood from falling debris.

The building's roof collapsed and officials said they would have to determine a way to lift it to douse the smoldering rubble. The building was known to house transients at times, but there was no indication of anyone being caught inside, said Rick Newlon, a Missoula County sheriff's detective.

The fire won't significantly change the cleanup plan for the site but the method of removing asbestos materials will be altered, the scientist in charge of the plan said.

Chris Cerquone, senior scientist with Geomatrix Consultants, said the roofing material contained asbestos, as did ceiling tiles of one of the rooms.

''So now, it's obviously on the ground,'' he said. ''And it's also migrated into the neighborhood to the west.''

A crew of 10 from a Geomatrix subcontractor was on the 45-acre site Tuesday and will be there for about a week picking up asbestos, Cerquone said. Chunks of asbestos-bearing material spewed about a half-mile west with ash from the fire when the large building burned.

The litter is not immediately dangerous to people, Cerquone said, because asbestos is a threat only when it's inhaled. If people have to handle pieces that fell in their yards, they should wet them first so they don't breathe in any of the fibers, he said.

Information from: Missoulian

Copyright 2005 Associated Press