Why Roseburg is focusing its Mill Fire investigation on ash-cooling machine at Weed plant
Roseburg Forest Products said it is investigating whether a machine at its Weed co-generation plant may have started the Mill Fire that went on to kill two people and destroy 107 structures.
Pete Hillan, a Roseburg spokesman, said company investigators are focusing on a machine that was used to cool ashes ejected from a co-generating electrical plant as the possible cause of the fire.
"That particular machine is perhaps the most likely candidate for what propelled or started the fire," Hillan said.
"We're still investigating. We don't know that yet. But of all the things that were near where the fire appears to have started, that seems to be the most risky item," he said.
The company also plans to set aside up to $50 million for a "community restoration" fund for residents affected by the fire, Roseburg said in a news release.
The co-generation plant produces electricity by burning wood waste, turning it into electricity used to power the wood veneer mill in Weed, Hillan said.
The Weed mill and co-generation plant employ about 140 people, he said.
The fire appears to have started in a building called "Shed 17," which is where ash from the co-generation plant is stored, he said.
It isn't clear whether any of the mill and co-generation plant's employees saw the fire break out or if they reported the fire, Hillan said.
"What I'm saying is we don't believe that there was sort of flames that just started, that it may have taken some time. So that it wasn't like there was a big event to see at the start of it," Hillan said.
The "water-spraying machine" that cools the ash is made by a third party, Hillan said, but he declined to name the manufacturer.
While Roseburg is investigating the ash-cooling machine, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has not determined the cause of the blaze.
The fire was first reported shortly before 1 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 2. Pushed by strong winds from the south, the blaze quickly churned through neighborhoods in north Weed, destroying whole blocks and sending several people to the hospital.
Two women, one 66 years old and the other 73, were killed in the blaze.
The fire was finally halted in the community of Lake Shastina, about 7 miles to the north.
“We know the fire has been devastating to Weed, and we are especially saddened by the loss of life,” Hillan said in a news release. “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.”
He said the company is setting up the $50 million fund to assist residents with initial recovery needs.
The news release said the company is not admitting liability by setting up the fund, but "the company is aware of the painful process other communities endured when seeking assistance after similar fires," the company said.
The company has also hired a lawyer with the firm Baker and Hostetler, which represented fire victims when Pacific Gas & Electric Co. filed for bankruptcy.
Roseburg said it anticipates the investigation into the fire will be complete within the next two weeks.
If the manufacturer of the ash-cooling machine or Roseburg started the fire, the company will open a claims processing office in Weed to review and pay claims, the company said.
The company plans to make another announcement on Sept. 14 with additional details about how residents can file claims for damages from the fire, Roseburg said.
Damon Arthur is the Record Searchlight’s resources and environment reporter. He is part of a team of journalists who investigate wrongdoing and find the unheard voices to tell the stories of the North State. He welcomes story tips at 530-338-8834 by email at email@example.com and on Twitter at @damonarthur_RS. Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today!