STRONG — Firefighters from several Franklin County towns blocked the spread of a quickly-moving fire at the Geneva Wood Fuels pellet mill Thursday morning.
The blaze started between the third and fourth floors of the mill, according to Jeff Allen, general manager of operations. Those floors, used primarily for storage, received smoke and water damage.
A little before 8 a. m. an employee noted a possible fire in an area between the two upper floors, he said.
“Lucinda (Allen) called 911, and we got everyone out of the building,” he said.
Fifty firefighters from Strong, Farmington, Jay, Temple, Wilton, Phillips and New Vineyard were at the scene, fire Chief Duayne Boyd said. That rapid response made a big difference.
“Jay and Farmington sent their ladder trucks, which were extremely helpful to us,” Boyd said. “They took off the siding and helped clear out the smoke so we could see exactly where things were.”
Many of the dozens of onlookers aimed their cellphone cameras toward the flames, which erupted periodically from a vent on the rooftop. Firefighters continued to extinguish flames coming from the vent and cut holes in the metal siding to spray the few hot spots that remained.
Boyd said a State Fire Marshal had arrived to inspect the damage but had not yet determined the cause of the fire.
As firefighters began to load their equipment onto trucks and leave midmorning, Allen said he was optimistic about resuming production quickly, because the primary damage had not affected the equipment on the lower levels.
“We have all of the wood outside the mill, so we will be able to get to work just as soon as they let us go into the building,” he said. “We’ll have a mess to clean up, but that’s not going to take long.”
Strong’s town office, in the center of town, faces the mill.
“We had just taken delivery of our order of pellets,” said Selectman Rupert Pratt, as he stood with Allen and surveyed the damage.
The town’s new wood-fired boiler has been heating the town offices for one week. The town’s energy team expects the change will save close to $7,000 in heating costs.
Pellet production has been robust because of increasing demand for an alternative to oil, Allen said. Local schools have installed pellet boilers to heat their buildings, and the mill supplied pellets to retail stores.
“We’ve been at 4,000 tons (of production) or more a month, so we’ve been really busy,” he said. “I expect we’ll be back in production pretty quickly.”
Chicago-based businessmen Jonathan Kahn and Benjamin Rose bought the former Forster Manufacturing Inc. wood products mill in March 2008, and invested more than $13 million for equipment and retrofitting costs.
In August, 2009, the mill was rocked by an explosion in the wood chip dryer, and the production equipment and the building were heavily damaged. The company rebuilt and replaced everything and began producing pellets within a year.
Since then, the mill has returned a much-needed tax base in a town that once had at least five mills, often with three shifts in continuous operation.
“Between the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement from the state and the property tax the mill pays, we receive approximately $80,000 a year from them,” Selectman Milt Baston said.