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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Ryan Sabalow, Jason Pohl and Dale Kasler

Deadly Mill fire possibly sparked by hot ash from power facility in Weed, company says

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Roseburg Forest Products acknowledged Wednesday it is investigating whether a malfunctioning sprinkler system allowed smoldering ash from an on-site power plant to ignite Friday’s deadly Mill fire in Weed.

The company has a wood-fired “cogeneration power” plant at its Weed mill that produces electricity. Leftover ash from the power plant was stored in a concrete bin inside a giant wooden warehouse known as Shed 17 on Roseburg’s property. The ash was sprayed with water “using a third-party-supplied machine,” Roseburg officials said.

Weed city officials and numerous residents have said the fatal wildfire began in or near Shed 17 before destroying at least 100 homes, most of them in Weed’s historically Black neighborhood of Lincoln Heights. The fire killed two women.

Roseburg’s statement Wednesday marked the first time the company acknowledged its potential role in the deadly inferno, although the company said “the origin of the fire is still to be determined” and officials stopped short of admitting the company was at fault.

“The process for handling the ash and removing it safely depends on the proper functioning of the third-party machinery, so it’s logical to investigate the potential failure of that machinery as the proximate cause of the fire,” Pete Hillan, a Roseburg spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday. “Roseburg is working closely with state and local investigators to determine if this is the case.”

It’s not clear what measures, if any, were required to allow ash to be stored in the warehouse. The company’s attorney, Robert Julian, said he isn’t aware of any objections from officials about Roseburg’s operations in the building.

“I don’t have any information,” he said, “that the local fire officials ever objected to any of the use of the building.”

Siskiyou County officials have not yet responded to The Sacramento Bee’s requests for permits or other documentation that would detail what was officially allowed to go on inside the building.

Julian, a San Francisco lawyer Roseburg hired last weekend after the fire, said in an interview with The Bee that he’s looking into whatever permits would have been needed before ash could be stored in the building.

He said the company had significantly “reduced the amount of ash coming out of the generator” in the past few months.

On the day of the fire, he said “there was less than half a truckload of ash” in the massive concrete bin inside Shed 17 that stored the ash. He added that the concrete structure that stored the ash “is longer than a football field” and is the only piece of the destroyed building that’s still standing.

Nonetheless, Roseburg acknowledged that the ash may have played a part in the fatal fire. Company officials said they are cooperating with Cal Fire investigators, who began combing over the wreckage of the building last weekend.

The Oregon-based company in its statement repeatedly cast blame on “third-party” sprinkler equipment — it used the phrase “third-party” five times, but Roseburg would not identify the manufacturer, which would have allowed that company an opportunity to respond.

Roseburg, which announced it’s setting up a $50 million “community restoration fund,” said it expected its investigation to conclude within two weeks. Cal Fire has only said the fire’s cause and origin is under investigation.

Were fires common inside Shed 17?

Roseburg for years had stored the smoldering ash from the biomass plant inside Shed 17 where it started small fires, five current and former employees and a retired firefighter told The Bee.

William Tate, a former superintendent at the co-generation plant, said a fire started inside Shed 17 within two weeks of him taking the job.

“I start losing my mind,” said Tate, who worked at the plant between 2016 and 2019. “Because, to me, this is a big deal. Everyone else’s reaction was pretty nonchalant because it happens all the time.”

He asked: “Why are we storing this material that has the ability to create an exothermic reaction in a wooden building? It makes no sense.”

One current employee, who did not want his name revealed for fear of retribution, told The Bee that small fires ignited inside Shed 17 occasionally, were put out quickly, and people didn’t think of them as a big deal. Neither he nor any of the former employees had specific knowledge of what might have sparked Friday’s fire.

The current employee also told The Bee that the company had temporarily stored ash from the biomass plant inside Shed 17 for years, inside the large concrete bunker. He said the concrete barrier was about 10 feet tall and had no lid.

“Trucks come in all week to pick it up, day to day,” the current employee said. It wasn’t immediately clear where the ash was taken once it left the Roseburg property.

Julian, the Roseburg lawyer, said he had no information about any previous fires in the building.

Roseburg had been storing ash in the facility for nearly two decades, and “the building never burned down,” Julian said. In recent months, the company verified that the watering equipment used “to bring the temperature down” in the barrier was working properly, he said. He said a high-pressure fire hose inside the building also had been functional.

Hillan said Roseburg is checking to see if the building’s fire-sprinkler system — separate from its ash-cooling sprinklers — was functioning properly on the day of the fire.

Prior to the fire, Julian said, the building had been slated for demolition.

Witnesses saw fire start at Roseburg shed

Witnesses told The Bee that they saw the 60-foot-tall warehouse catch fire Wednesday just before the fire jumped from Roseburg property into the adjacent neighborhood. Firefighters’ radio traffic from Friday also suggested that’s what happened.

“This is the entire Shed 17,” a firefighter said over his radio just before 1 p.m. “Probably 50,000 square feet. Fire is now jumping Highway 97, with a strong south wind. We’re gonna need at least three alarms on this.”

The 15-megawatt cogeneration plant at Roseburg, approved by Siskiyou County officials in 2008 despite concerns from environmentalists about air pollution, is one of dozens operating in California, burning wood and other biomass materials to generate electricity. Roseburg sells the electricity to a consortium of municipal utilities, including in Sacramento and Southern California.

Industry officials said plant owners use multiple methods of storing the leftover ash.

“One of the natural byproducts of this process is ash, which is stored in a variety of safe methods across the country. The storage of this material is permitted and regulated by appropriate local and state agencies,” said Mitchell Martin, operations and engineering director at Greenleaf Power, a biomass company based in Sacramento.

Various state and federal regulatory agencies say the cogen plant and onsite waste storage would have been regulated by Siskiyou County officials, who have yet to provide The Bee with requested documentation.

Roseburg said it would provide “up to $50 million” to help the community recover from the fire. The money will help displaced residents pay for temporary shelter, cover medical supplies and buy clothes, food and water. The company said it will announce on Sept. 14 how residents can file their claims and what documents they’ll need to provide.

The fund is not a replacement for existing property insurance claims. Roseburg said it should also not be taken as an admission that the company is liable for the fire; those investigations remain ongoing.

“We know the fire has been devastating to Weed, and we are especially saddened by the loss of life,” said Hillan, the Roseburg spokesman. “It has had a severe impact on our cherished neighbors, and on us, with three of our team members among those who lost their homes.”

Julian, who represented wildfire victims making claims against PG&E Corp., said Roseburg is intent on doing the right thing for the community.


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