LINCOLN, Maine — A sprinkler system and alert mill personnel helped douse a sawdust fire at Lincoln Paper and Tissue LLC on Friday before it got out of hand, Fire Chief Phil Dawson said Monday.
The fire, Dawson said, appeared to do minimal damage to the mill at 50 Katahdin Ave., but could have been much worse.
“There was a lot of luck involved in that the sprinkler system happened to come on and suppressed 95 percent of the fire,” Dawson said. “It went quickly. It was awful hot. We were fortunate that it was of short enough duration not to expose our crews to the intense heat for a very long time.”
Reported at about 12:35 p.m. Friday, the fire apparently began in a long tunnel underneath the mill’s massive sawdust pile. The tunnel houses equipment that helps move sawdust onto a long conveyor belt that carries the sawdust into the mill for pulping operations, Dawson said.
Upon arrival, firefighters shut down electricity to that part of the mill because they feared that the fans would blow the fire farther along, Dawson said.
With the fans shut off, Dawson said, the tunnel area became hot enough to engage the sprinklers. Mill personnel also showed firefighters where to attack the flames, and firefighters were back in their station an hour after the call came in.
Mill co-owner Keith Van Scotter said he believed the fire started with a hot bearing within the conveyor system.
“It was a little fire,” he said Monday. “We have a very good fire detection system, and we usually make sure the fire department shows up to check everything out.”
Howland and Lee firefighters came to the scene to assist in case the fire spread widely or rapidly, Dawson said.
Sawdust fires are an infrequent but not uncommon problem at sawmills and paper mills, particularly in dry, hot weather. The last sawdust fire reported at the Lincoln mill occurred on Jan. 16. It started in the M&D digester, an inclined pressure vessel with a multilevel conveyor that helps turn sawdust and wood shavings into white, bleached pulp critical to tissue- and papermaking. Minor damage occurred.
Three fires believed to have been sparked or aided by sawdust have been reported in the bark prep room at the Katahdin Paper Co. LLC mill in East Millinocket since Dec. 16. In each case bales of newsprint were burned.
The Gardner Chip Mills facility on Route 116 took some damage when ignited wood chips were carried by heavy winds and conveyor belts that spread fire over most of the chip yard in April 2009. A long-smoldering fire at Chester Forest Products on Main Road erupted into flames beneath a conveyer belt in the shaker room, where wood shavings are separated from sawdust, in October 2007.
A small fire was also reported at the East Millinocket paper mill on Saturday, but no details were available on Monday.
No injuries were reported in any of the blazes.