A sawmill is investigating whether its equipment started a fatal fire

Operators of a sawmill where firefighters first saw flames from the factory blaze last week said they were investigating whether a water spray machine was had not sufficiently cooled the ash by-products and would have potentially started the fatal fire.

Roseburg Forest Products — which has operated the veneer plant in the center of Weed, a small town near the Oregon border, since 1982 — released a lengthy statement Wednesday saying equipment at its cogeneration plant was possibly to have broken down. Company officials said they were working with state and local investigators to determine if this was the cause.

“The process of handling the ashes and disposing of them safely depends on the proper functioning of third-party machines, so it makes sense to investigate the potential failure of these machines as the immediate cause of the fire,” Pete said. Hillan, a partner at Sam Singer Associates, a disaster public relations firm, who now speaks as a spokesperson for the lumber company.

A Cal Fire spokesperson could not immediately comment and was unaware of the company’s announcement, but officially no cause has been determined for the Sept. 2 blaze that killed two people, injured three and destroyed more than 100 structures. The fire has burned nearly 4,000 acres and is 65% contained.

Firefighters from a nearby Weed City Fire Department station first spotted flames in the area of ​​the Roseburg property, a massive facility in downtown Weed. The flames, buffeted by strong winds, quickly skipped Highway 99 west and blasted through a residential neighborhood.

The day after the fire, a company spokesperson told The Chronicle that the fire had started on or near company property and that fire investigators were probing an old warehouse where the company kept spare equipment. The company said there was no activity in the warehouse at the time of the fire, but the nearby veneer plant, where wood is stripped to prepare it for plywood, was operating at that time. The spokesman, however, said there were no issues at the veneer plant or the cogeneration plant that powers the operation.

However, in Wednesday’s statement, Roseburg explained that the CHP plant’s cooling equipment is now the focus of its investigation. The mill produces its own electrical energy by burning wood scraps. The generator ejects ash which is sprayed with cooling water using a “machine supplied by a third party”.

“Roseburg is investigating whether the third-party machine failed to sufficiently cool the ashes, thereby starting the fire,” the company said.

While no official cause for the fire has been determined, Roseburg said it plans to provide $50 million to a community restoration fund for the “initial recovery needs of affected residents.” The fund would help residents with temporary shelter, medical supplies and treatment, transportation, clothing, food and water, and childcare, the society said.

“We know the fire was devastating to Weed, and we are especially saddened by the loss of life,” Hillan said. “It has had a severe impact on our dear neighbours, and on us, with three members of our team among those who lost their homes.”

The company employs 145 workers in the town of less than 3,000 people.

Roseburg said it hired San Francisco attorney Robert Julian, the attorney who represented the interests of 70,000 fire victims in the Pacific Gas & Electric bankruptcy, to lead its response to Mill Fire.

The company said it planned a two-week investigation into the cause of the fire. If Roseburg determines that third-party equipment or company property started the fire, the company said it will ask its insurers to recognize the coverage and open a claims handling office in Weed with adjusters to review and pay community claims. If unhappy with the payment offers, residents would be free to consult with a lawyer, the company said.

The company plans to announce more details about the claims process on September 14.

“While Roseburg does not admit responsibility for establishing this community fund as investigations are not complete, the company is aware of the painful process other communities have endured when seeking assistance after fires. similar,” the company said. “For this reason, Roseburg is setting up this fund before investigations are completed so that the community can recover as quickly as possible.”

Roseburg is a privately held company and one of North America’s leading producers of particleboard, fiberboard and laminates. It owns more than 600,000 acres of forest land in Oregon, North Carolina and Virginia.

Matthias Gafni is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @mgafni