Ashes and a charred frame are all that’s left of the saw mill at Mary’s River Lumber in Montesano following a devastating fire that continued burning for more than eight hours from late Saturday night to Sunday morning.
Montesano Fire Chief Corey Rux says that he assigned a small fire crew and an engine on the scene overnight on Sunday to keep an eye on hot spots and ensure the scene is secure. On Tuesday, firefighters continued their investigation with the lumber company’s insurance carrier to figure out just what happened.
Except for security, the mill was unoccupied. No one was hurt in the fire, Rux said.
“We don’t know the origin of the fire or what started it at this point,” Rux said Sunday afternoon. “All of that remains under investigation.”
Terry Smith, the general manager at the lumber mill, said that the company notified its employees not to show up for work. Smith said the company employs about 105 people. Only a handful were on site on Monday.
The question becomes, will the company rebuild on the current footprint, knowing the site has been plagued with flooding and erosion issues?
“We still have to do our research and figure out what exactly happens now,” Smith said Sunday afternoon. “This could take a while to sink in.”
Owners of Mary’s River Lumber traveled from Corvalis, Ore., Sunday to take a look at the mill, Smith said.
DETAILS OF FIRE
More than 35 firefighters were on scene from five different jurisdictions as the call went out multiple times for more support, Rux said. The fire started just before 9 p.m. and the main fire crew didn’t depart until about 5:30 a.m. on Sunday.
“They were out there tirelessly working all night,” Rux said. “There were quite intense flames, intense heat and all kinds of different hazards and the biggest issues were trying to keep the fire in the building and keep it from spreading to other structures.”
The Grays Harbor PUD was able to cut power to the saw mill early on, but leave lights on in the surrounding area, which helped the firefighters keep an eye on their surroundings as they battled the fire, Rux said.
A careful eye was also kept on one building, which had flammable liquids, hydraulic oils and diesel fuel. There was also a nearby propane tank that made it through the nearby fire intact.
When the saw mill fire was under control, firefighters then turned their attention to a large metal elevated chip bin, which was about a quarter full of wood chips, all on fire and smoldering into the early morning.
“Early in the morning, we were able to open the bin and get the chips out and the fire contained there, as well,” Rux said.
Montesano Mayor Ken Estes said that a Public Works crew was also on scene to make sure the water pressure remained stabilized and to ensure the water lines didn’t buckle from all of the use. And Montesano Police officers helped secure the scene while the State Patrol helped control traffic, with Highway 107 closed in both directions for several hours.
Fire Districts 2, 5, 10 and Cosmopolis Fire joined Montesano Fire in fighting the blaze.
The mayor noted there was also plenty of community support. Thriftway opened its doors late at night and gave water and ice to the firefighters.
“The heat was so intense that we needed to keep our guys hydrated,” Estes said.
Gepetto’s Italian restaurant in Montesano also kept the pizzas coming, Estes said.
Estes said he checked out the scene early Sunday morning.
“After seeing the fire shoot into the sky some 100 to 150 feet, everything at the sawmill was just char and ashes,” Estes said.
Some nearby buildings in the complex remained intact, though, including a supply building and the planer building, which originally burned to the ground back in 2000.
The Assessor’s Office said the mill and planer building combined were valued at more than $14.5 million. The exact value of the mill, itself, wasn’t broken down. The value is from four years ago. The Assessor’s Office was just in the midst of doing a revaluation of the property.
Chief Rux said that firefighters were also able to save about 80,000 board feet of cedar.
The old sawmill, made entirely out of wood, is nothing but ash. The newer addition made of steel has been gutted and all of the steel beams for the roof have caved in.
“The third floor of the building is just gone,” Estes said. “It’s totally collapsed. All of the blades and back where the operator sits are also gone. The blades and everything related to cutting is ruined and heat-exposed.”
“Once they clean up, there should be a couple weeks worth of work there,” Estes said. “The concern is we hope they will rebuild. I’ve already told the mill manager that the city is prepared to do whatever it can to process building permits and help them rebuild on their footprint as soon as possible.”
One question that the company could face is if it even wants to rebuild at its current site.
Back in 2009, Mary’s River Lumber was actually looking to leave its current site, which sits on the banks of the Chehalis River, concerned about an increase in flooding on the property and continued erosion.
Instead, the company moved just part of its shipping operations to an industrial park near Elma, facilitated by a $225,000 grant by the county commissioners to improve the water line in the area.
Earlier this month, the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority approved $102,426 in state funds to design a revetment to protect Mary’s River Lumber and the nearby Montesano sewage treatment plant. The funds will be used to come up with alternatives to help stop the erosion, which could include “armoring techniques” to protect the mill site, while also helping fish habitat.
Actual construction costs range dramatically. A 2008 study financed by Mary’s River Lumber put the cost of the project at $1.5 million. But a project estimate provided to the Flood Authority puts the project at $14 million. And a funding source to do those repairs hasn’t been identified, although Mayor Estes says he’s hopeful the project could be put on a list of possible Flood Authority projects in the governor’s capital budget.
Erosion on site still remains a concern. A report by Estes shows that an isthmus in the river at the site was once 800 yards wide in 1994 and today it’s only 100 yards wide.
“In the event of a major flood this area could erode through and even under normal river conditions may not hold more than five years, which would cause the river to attack the bank under Mary’s River Lumber, full force,” Estes wrote in a memo to the Flood Authority on Thursday, just two days before the fire. “…The benefits of this project will be to protect this $20 million business, with significant tax benefits, and 120 family-wage jobs.”
“I was worried about water, but here we had this fire,” Estes added.
The company did end up purchasing about 10 acres near Schouweiler Road when it moved part of its shipping operations there. However, the company merely leases the land the current mill sits on in Montesano. The land is actually owned by the city of Montesano, although Estes said the company has a couple more decades to go on its lease. “I’m optimistic even with the erosion and flooding issues, they’ll want to rebuild on the footprint,” Estes said.
“I’m doing everything I can to help the company,” Estes added Monday afternoon. “It’s my biggest priority right now.”