Tender Task Force Required at Ore. Mill Blaze

July 19--SPRINGFIELD -- Firefighters ran short of water as they responded to the massive fire that destroyed a large plywood mill on Thursday, officials said Friday.

The blaze rendered private hydrants on the mill property inoperable, and firefighters had to rely on about a dozen water tenders to supply water, Eugene Springfield Fire Chief Randy Groves said. Also, the state Department of Forestry ordered a Weyerhaeuser Co. helicopter that dumped water on the blaze.

"We ran out of water," said Deputy Fire Marshal Amy Linder, the lead fire investigator. "We didn't have enough water."

Groves doubted firefighters could have saved the mill even with working hydrants because the fast-moving fire was "almost explosive in its progress." However, with working hydrants, they would have been able to prevent spot fires that ignited in the fields to the south of the mill, he said.

Employees reported racing to safety as the fire that started in a wood dryer began consuming the mill in minutes.

Executive Vice President Chuck Wert, executive vice president of the Swanson Group, which owns the mill, declined comment when asked about the water shortage.

"We need more time to do our own investigation and talk to the fire marshal and everyone that has been at the site," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Springfield Utility Board, the city's water purveyor, said a single meter connection serves the mill for industrial and potable uses and fire suppression. Fire officials said the connection provides water to an overhead sprinkler system and private hydrants on the mill property.

The collapsing structure severed overhead sprinkler pipes, causing water to pour out, reducing water pressure throughout the mill and making the private hydrants inoperable, officials said.

The mill sits at the edge of the city limits, south of an east-west-running main railroad line.

Groves said Thursday evening that south of the rail line there were no hydrants at or near the mill site that were connected directly to the SUB system. Such hydrants could have provided more pressure with which to fight the fire. But the city and SUB confirmed Friday there is one such direct-connect hydrant located south of the tracks and east of the mill property.

However, Groves said Friday that records he received that same day showed that hydrant was at least a quarter-mile east of the mill property south of the tracks. Maps provided by Groves and SUB confirmed this.

Groves said that public hydrant was too far away for firefighters to connect to. Firefighters attempted to connect to the mill's private hydrants, but they were either too close to the fire or inoperable, he said.

Given the "massive amount of fire, heat and rate of spread, we believe that with or without an adequate water supply, the outcome would have been the same," the fire chief said.

Linder said fire suppression systems are built to standards in effect when a facility is constructed, but she couldn't comment on whether various owners of the mill had upgraded those systems in the years since the factory was built. It's unclear how old the mill is, and it was not immediately known when the mill's sprinklers and private fire hydrants were installed.

Citing the ongoing investigation, Linder also couldn't comment on whether the overhead sprinkler system activated when the fire started.

The fire started in one of the three dryers that dry the veneer after it's peeled from logs, although investigators haven't determined the cause.

Groves said it could take days before the remnants of the mill cool down enough to allow access to the site. The damage may be so extensive, he said, investigators may never know the exact cause of the fire.

Firefighters would remain on scene into Saturday morning to keep watch.

"As long as there's a threat that this could flare up and get a fire started, we're going to watch it closely and make assessments as we go," Groves said.

 

 

Copyright 2014 - The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore.

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