Four towns fight fire at paper mill

Posted Dec. 16, 2009, at 11:25 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:08 p.m.

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Firefighters from four towns spent about seven hours Wednesday battling a fire that consumed several tons of recycled newsprint amid miserably smoky, foggy and icy conditions at the Katahdin Paper Co. LLC mill.

As many as 300 rectangular blocks of tightly wrapped newsprint were damaged or destroyed, Fire Chief Les Brown said. Each was about 4 feet high by 10 feet long and they were piled together in a mound up to 25 feet tall in a 100-by-100 foot area at the center of the mill’s football field-size recycling warehouse.

It was fortunate that only one firefighter, a town fireman whom Brown declined to identify, suffered a minor injury, smoke inhalation, Brown said.

“Industrial fires are always the worst,” Brown said Wednesday. “You have trenches in the mill, pieces of equipment in the mill, and a lot of electrical things in the mill, and most of the firefighters don’t work there anymore, so they don’t know their way around.”

The battle did not begin well for firefighters, Brown said. When they were called to the fire, at about 11:45 a.m., the flames were already out of control. The warehouse was so smoky that firefighters had to open the warehouse’s large bay doors, set up fans and wait about 45 minutes for the air to clear, he said.

The mill no longer has a fire brigade, so firefighters lacked guidance, Brown said.

“We could not let any firefighters in there because any of those tons of paper could fall over and kill a firefighter instantly,” Brown said. “The fans that they have did what they are supposed to do, but they are not big enough to do the job. They are not built for that [fire ventilation].”

With temperatures peaking Wednesday at only 11 degrees Fahrenheit, the open doors and firefighters’ water created ice and steam pretty quickly, Brown said.

“Between the steam and smoke, the visibility was zero inside the building,” Brown said.

Firefighters wearing air tanks had to use two front loaders to haul burning paper out of the building. All firefighters had to rotate through fighting the fire to get their tanks refilled.

Then, about two hours into the fire, the warehouse’s sprinkler system came on, not stopping the fire but adding considerably to the steam, Brown said.

“By the time we left, there was 6 inches of water on the floor,” Brown said.

Millworkers will assess the damage done by the fire in the next few days. The mill’s operations were not curtailed, said Rick Grunthaler, the mill’s human resources manager. Managed by Fraser Papers and owned by parent company Brookfield Asset Management of Toronto, the Main Street mill employs as many as 491 hourly workers making directory-grade papers and newsprint.

Brown was pleased and impressed with firefighters’ efforts. East Millinocket, Lincoln, Medway and Millinocket firefighters fought the blaze, Brown said. The last crews left the fire at about 6:45 p.m., town firefighters said.

“Everybody had to work their butts off,” he said.

nsambides@bangordailynews.net

794-8215

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