Lincoln reviewing response to Chester sawmill fire after owners complain

Posted July 21, 2011, at 6:21 p.m.
Electrician Michael Rioux douses hot spots in an attached
shed at the Chester Forest Products sawmill in Chester on Friday, July
15, 2011. Company officials have complained that firefighters didn't
attack the fire fast enough, Lincoln Fire Chief Phil Dawson says.
Electrician Michael Rioux douses hot spots in an attached shed at the Chester Forest Products sawmill in Chester on Friday, July 15, 2011. Company officials have complained that firefighters didn't attack the fire fast enough, Lincoln Fire Chief Phil Dawson says.
The scorched sawmill building at a Chester Forest Products dwarfs Randy Bishop (second from right), Chester Forest Products' chief financial officer on Friday, July 15, 2011.
The scorched sawmill building at a Chester Forest Products dwarfs Randy Bishop (second from right), Chester Forest Products' chief financial officer on Friday, July 15, 2011.

CHESTER, Maine — Lincoln Fire Chief Phil Dawson is reviewing firefighters’ response to a blaze at a Chester sawmill that occurred last week after the sawmill’s owners complained that firefighters attacked the flames too slowly, he said Thursday.

Thomas Gardner, whose family owns the Chester Forest Products sawmill on South Chester Road, said the mill is almost ready to resume operations after the July 15 blaze.

“We will be operational on Monday,” Gardner said Thursday, “but it’s a sore subject with me.”

He referred further comment to Dawson.

Dawson said he met with sawmill officials on Monday and is working with them to help firefighters and millworkers improve operations at any future incidents.

East Millinocket, Howland, Lee, Lincoln, Mattawamkeag, Medway and Seboeis fire department crews fought the fire or stood by in Lincoln to answer other calls for several hours last Friday. No one was injured in the fire.

Lincoln Deputy Fire Chief Hervey Clay, who was filling in for an absent Dawson, praised two small Lincoln crews, including one that cut a large entryway into the front side of the building, for attacking the fire immediately and, he said, managing to contain a vast amount of it.

However, company officials complained that firefighters took too long to attack the fire, Dawson said.

The fire, which was reported about 1:55 p.m., appeared to threaten to destroy the sawmill. Lincoln was first on the scene, with only two firefighters available to go into the building at first.

“Having sufficient firefighters on scene, especially during daytime, is a rare event,” Dawson said. He called the lack of volunteer firefighters “a common problem across the state or the country.”

As many as 45 minutes later, firefighters from several towns had mounted several interior attacks, but flames were burning untouched in the roof and walls of the back and on one side of the building. Michael Rioux, an electrical contractor working at the mill, then grabbed a Gardner tanker truck hose and doused flames under the supervision of a single firefighter, former Mattawamkeag Deputy Chief Michael Coombs, in what looked like a large shed attached to the building.

Lincoln firefighters, who are contracted to cover Chester, were handicapped by several factors, Dawson said. The department is down several paid firefighters and it takes time for Howland and Lee volunteers to assemble and get to the mill. Firefighters also had an apparent lack of water, Dawson said.

They might have accessed a pond on the property, but they were not immediately aware of it and probably could not have taken a tanker truck down the pond road because it was too rough, Dawson said.

Firefighters and company officials will discuss whether the pond could be used in the future.

No firefighters who immediately arrived were going to go into the large building with only the water from their pumper trucks supporting them, Dawson said. Supervisors must also ensure that the firefighters have enough training for an interior attack.

“We need sufficient resources to do sustained operations and to maintain a safety margin for our firefighters who do interior work,” Dawson said. “To ensure that, you have to have a minimum of four firefighters on the scene and more than one truck and you have to have a water supply. After a relatively short time, I don’t think water was the issue.”

The departments had to shuttle water to the scene by tanker truck and rotate crews into the sawmill to prevent heat exhaustion.

About the length of a football field, the building is essentially a large tin shed with additions. Like most sawmills, it has tons of sawdust, tree bark, cut wood and other flammable items in and near it.

That flammability, the dry, hot conditions and a strong wind made the fire challenging, said Dawson, as did the flames getting into the walls. For overcoming all of that, and for saving the sawmill’s equipment, firefighters did a good job, Dawson said.

“We’re going to educate each other as to what our needs are,” Dawson said of firefighters and company officials. “We want to work closely with everybody. We always try to provide good customer service. There will always be people out there who may not be totally satisfied with fire suppression results. Once they have a better understanding of what our procedures are, then they understand why it might take us a longer time to do some things.”

“As bad as that building looks, in regards to fire damage, their operations will continue on Monday,” he added. “We understand that they have undergone some losses, we are sensitive to that, but we don’t go to fires to lose. We go to these fires to win, to protect life and property.”

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