Disaster averted at Chester chip mill

Posted April 17, 2009, at 10:04 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:22 p.m.

CHESTER, Maine — A passing motorcyclist who first spotted smoke and the quick action of employees and firefighters all helped prevent the Gardner Chip Mills facility on Route 116 from going up in flames Friday evening. Their efforts were hampered by heavy winds and conveyor belts that spread the fire over most of the chip yard.

Had the flames burned into the chipping room or the mill’s huge reclamation pile of sawdust and chips, the fire would have done huge damage that firefighters would have been helpless to prevent, said Scott Gardner, vice president of the Gardner family’s various companies.

“They got it knocked down just in time,” Gardner said Friday. “They did a great job.”

The passing motorcyclist, whose name was not available, called 911 to report to the Penobscot Regional Communications Center that he saw heavy black smoke pouring from the yard at 2:55 p.m., dispatchers and witnesses said.

Gardner workers at the mill and at the Gardner wood yard across Route 116 emptied at least three dozen fire extinguishers on flames once the alarm went out, Gardner said.

But incessant winds and hydraulic fluid on the huge rubber conveyor belts arched high over the facility left small splotches of fire burning on isolated spots in about half of the two-acre yard from the chipping room at one end to the chip bin at the other.

“Nothing burns faster than rubber, hydraulic oil and wood chips,” Gardner said.

When Lincoln Deputy Fire Chief Hervey Clay arrived, he immediately called for all the mutual aid he could get and eventually got it from Burlington, Howland, Lee, Medway, Passadumkeag, the Maine Forest Service and assorted firefighters from Springfield, he said. East Millinocket firefighters manned Lincoln’s station.

“The fire was spreading into open areas,” Clay said. “The conveyors were acting like chimneys.”

The site’s lack of water also forced the huge mutual call. Firefighters had to shuttle in water via tanker trucks from hydrants on West Broadway in Lincoln among other places.

Firefighters concentrated on saving buildings and machinery before attacking the flames burning in the piles of sawdust and chips arrayed around the yard. They and Gardner workers used shovels and a backhoe to dig into the burning wood materials. They appeared to save everything but the conveyor belt and a generator that ran it.

“It’s really not that bad a fire. There’s more conveyor damage than anything,” said Terry Davis of Howland, a maintenance manager for Gardner.

No injuries were reported.

The mill, which is entirely devoted to supplying Lincoln Paper & Tissue Co. LLC with hardwood chips for its tissue making, will still make its deliveries, Gardner said.

His company has about 2,500 tons of clean chips in inventory, and he plans to restart the Gardner chipping mill in Dolby for about a week on Monday. The inventory and restart should allow enough time to replace damaged equipment, he said.

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