'The last mill standing'

By Jessica Cejnar, The Triplicate October 30, 2013 05:43 pm

Red was the color of the night early Saturday as flames destroyed Hambro’s former particle board plant on Elk Valley Road.
Red was the color of the night early Saturday as flames destroyed Hambro’s former particle board plant on Elk Valley Road. Photo courtesy of Debra Wakefield
A fire that is still smoldering at the Hambro Group’s particle board plant in Crescent City may mark the end of an era.

“It was the last mill standing in Del Norte County,” said county Auditor-Controller Clint Schaad, who worked at the plant to put himself through college. “We’ll see what comes of it down the road, but it’s definitely a sad day to see it burn down.”

More than 50 firefighters from nearly every agency in the county tackled the blaze Saturday morning on Elk Valley Road, Crescent City Fire Chief Steve Wakefield said. One volunteer, sheriff’s Commander Bill Steven, sustained minor injuries.

After being dispatched at about 6:30 a.m. to respond to a report of an outbuilding on fire, crews arrived to find the middle of the main building ablaze with flames quickly spreading, Wakefield said.

“Most of it was a wood structure. The wood was burning,” he said. “The other thing, in that old particle board plant there’s wood and sawdust everywhere. It’s basically like laying a bunch of gasoline down. Once it heats a little bit, it just goes up.”

With the wood structure collapsing, firefighters attacked the blaze from the outside. The wood structure supporting the metal roof burned so rapidly the building started caving in. There were still tiny spot fires when crews left Hambro about seven hours later, Wakefield said.

The fire also caused some gas cylinders to explode, said Hambro General Manager Joel Wallen.

Because the fire is so deep-seated inside what’s left of the structure, it will be smoldering for “quite a while,” Wakefield said Monday.

“We went out there so we could actually see where it’s at, and it’s too dangerous to put anybody (in) there,” he said. “It’s hot and it’s going to be hot for a while. Probably until we get a good rain.”

Photo courtesy of Debra Wakefield
Photo courtesy of Debra Wakefield
Steven, a volunteer firefighter for about 10 years, said a burning fire hose struck him in the face. He had been pulling the hose, which belonged to Hambro, away from a wooden cabinet that was also on fire when he got hurt. 

“When I pulled it out something shot out of that thing like a bullet,” he said. “It was basically the melting burning hose that hit me right on my face by my left eye. It missed my eye by about a quarter of an inch.”

Steven said he went to Sutter Coast Hospital, where workers cleaned away black melted material from the hose that was stuck to his face. On Monday, he was back at work at the Sheriff’s Office.

The building had been used to manufacture particle board for about 40 years, said Dwayne Reichlin, who joined the firm in 1968 and retired in 2011. Before that, it was the site of a planer mill built in the 1940s, which was part of the wooden structure that was burning, he said. Hambro is currently in the process of dismantling the plant, Reichlin said.

Wakefield said it may be the dismantling operation that started the fire. Employees had been working with cutting torches as recently as Friday afternoon, he said. 

“My guess is some sparks got into some wood chips and started smoldering,” Wakefield said. “Then through the course of the night it got to be a bit of a fire.”

A security guard noticed the blaze and called the Fire Department, Wakefield said.

Reichlin said when he arrived at the plant at about 9:30 a.m. Saturday, fire crews were still knocking down some major flames.

The particle board plant was shut down about two years ago, Reichlin said. Hambro representatives were hoping to modify the unit, he said.

“I worked at the plant for 10 years and ran it for 30 years until I retired three years ago,” he said. “A lot of memories are buried out there.”

Wallen said the fire shouldn’t affect Hambro’s current operations.

“We’ll see what we can do,” he said. “We’ve still got the warehouse and trucking shops and EcoNutrients is working fine. We’ve still got assets to work with.”

Photo courtesy of Debra Wakefield
Photo courtesy of Debra Wakefield
The fire rained down ash on parts of south Crescent City.

Tammy Fish, a Fortuna resident who was staying at the Anchor Beach Inn for the weekend, said she heard what sounded like booms from inside her room at 7 a.m., but didn’t pay much attention until she saw her car covered with ash about an hour later. Other debris, what looked like Styrofoam, was also blowing around the motel’s parking lot, she said.  

“My cousin and I took our car to the car wash in Fortuna and we washed the car,” she said. “When it was wet, you couldn’t see any burn marks until it dried. It looks like ash, but it doesn’t come off. It’s on the hood, the trunk and the roof of the car.”

Firefighters responded to the scene from Crescent Fire Protection District, the Crescent City Volunteer Fire Department, the Fort Dick Volunteer Fire Department, the Smith River Volunteer Fire Department, the Pelican Bay State Prison Fire Department and Cal Fire. The Harbor, Ore., Fire Department was available to respond to emergency calls in the north end of the county, he said.

The burned out mill continues to smolder and will likely do so until the next storm.
The burned out mill continues to smolder and will likely do so until the next storm. Del Norte Triplicate / Jessica Cejnar
Schaad said he did a variety of jobs at the particle board plant when he was home from Southern Oregon University during the summer. His older brother also had jobs at Hambro and his father was the personnel and risk manager before he retired about three years ago.

Schaad said he heard about the fire coming back from a trip to Portland and decided to pay a visit Sunday.

“It was surreal to see that big building that had been up there for so long all burnt and on the ground,” he said. “The upside to it is nobody was seriously hurt. And fortunately, the community already lost that portion of employment there.”

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