June 25, 2018
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Firefighters stop blaze at Chester sawmill

By Nick Sambides, Special to the BDN

CHESTER, Maine — Firefighters from six northernPenobscot County towns stopped a fire that threatened to consume the roof of a Chester Forest Products sawmill on South Chester Road on Friday. No injuries were reported, firefighters said.

The greatest work stopping the fire might have been done when the first small group of Lincoln firefighters arrived. Two small crews, including one that cut a large entryway into the front side of the building, attacked the fire immediately and managed to contain a vast amount of it, Deputy Fire Chief Hervey Clay said.

“They worked their butts off and knocked a lot of fire down in a few minutes,” Clay said Friday.

East Millinocket, Howland, Lee, Lincoln, Mattawamkeag and Medway fire crews fought the fire or stood by in Lincoln to answer other calls. The departments had to shuttle water to the scene by tanker truck and rotate crews into the sawmill building to prevent heat exhaustion in firefighters.

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

Randy Bishop, Chester Forest Products’ chief financial officer, said it was impossible to tell as of Friday afternoon how much damage was done to the sawmill and whether the fire would curtail the company’s operations. Nor did firefighters know where the blaze began or why, Clay said.

“We will have a crew here in the morning to assess what happened, where we are and where we go from here,” Bishop said.

As of 4:15 p.m., firefighters appeared to have the fire under control, but some of it had gotten into the roof of the sawmill building. Firefighters said they expected to be on-scene for several hours dousing hot spots and guarding against flare-ups.

Reported at about 1:55 p.m., the fire at first appeared to threaten to destroy the sawmill. Lincoln firefighters were first on scene, with Lt. Frank Hammond and his son Jake the only firefighters available to go into the building. Other firefighters arrived and they were able to mount their first interior attacks in the building.

As many as 45 minutes later, flames were burning untouched in the roof and walls of the back and on one side of the building because not enough firefighters were available to douse those areas.

Bishop was on the scene at about 2:45 p.m. looking at one side of the building with other sawmill workers. He said he was at Jato Highlands Golf Course when firefighters received the call and someone called the golf course, which, like the sawmill, is owned by the Gardner family of Lincoln.

He and other company workers could only watch as paint started to melt from the side of the metal building and flames started to peek through the building walls.

“It looks like it’s in the roof,” Bishop said of the fire.

Eventually, Michael Rioux of Rioux Electric of Medway, an electrical contractor working at the mill, grabbed a hose from a Gardner tanker truck and doused flames and smoldering wood under the supervision of a single firefighter, Mattawamkeag Deputy Fire Chief Michael Coombs, in what looked like a large shed attached to the sawmill building.

Rioux and other workers took turns manning the single hose in the shed, which was piled high with blackened sawdust. Eventually, Lee firefighters arrived and relieved the civilians.

Chester Forest Products employs as many as 30 workers fashioning various wood products, Bishop said.

Firefighters began clearing the site at 4:45 p.m. but were still on-scene at 5:30 p.m.

Correction: A previous version of this story identified a firefighter in a photo as Mattawamkeag Deputy Chief Michael Coombs. Coombs is not the deputy chief.

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