Hoonah mill fire, explosion investigation closes

Posted: Tuesday, July 27, 2010

State Deputy Fire Marshal Bob Plumb said he believes the fire and explosion at Icy Straits Lumber & Milling Inc. in Hoonah "were dust explosions from saw dust material that had accumulated in the mill structural elements."

Plumb left Hoonah Sunday, as did members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms unit from Anchorage, and Hoonah police have released the fire scene.

"After looking the scene over with the folks from BAT&F we have eliminated the possibility of high explosives," Plumb said.

According to Plumb they don't know exactly what caused the dust to ignite, but think sometime during the mill crew's work 1 1/2 days before the fire an ember from a cigarette or hot metal off from equipment or another source dropped into the sawdust.

Plumb said that could have smoldered undetected, then turned into a hotter burn, and then could possibly have ignited an aerosol can or hand-held propane torch. That explosion would have been enough to rattle the structure and dislodge a cloud of dust which was ignited by the fire resulting in more explosions.

"Dust, if it is a carbon-base material like flour, coal dust, or like grain elevators ... those kinds of places get dust clouds that become explosive under just the right circumstances," Plumb said. "Saw mills especially have that reputation."

Plumb said he had the dust theory early on, but an area of heavy damage on the building's concrete floor and structures concerned him. This area but later attributed to fire damage.

"We will have to classify the fire as undetermined because we don't know what started the initial smoldering fire," Plumb said. "But overall we are looking at it as an accidental fire. I am glad we can put some people's minds at ease since there was speculation here and in Juneau."

Hoonah police chief John Milan said the town is saddened but all are ready to help out.

"We seem to be on the same sheet of music," Milan said. "Everyone wants to help and (owners) Wes and Sue (Tyler) are hardworking honest troopers and will bounce back. The governor's coming out so who knows, maybe he will get some help."

Gov. Sean Parnell's press secretary Sharon Leighow confirmed that the governor would be in Hoonah today as part of a previously-planned visit and is going to visit the sawmill.

Milan said if evidence comes to light while cleanup of the building proceeds then he will reopen the investigation. He stated that the mill was within the city limits even though the surrounding area and the approach to the mill are not, which is why the three agencies were working together.

For Wesley Tyler and his 14 employees it is back to business as usual. His operation is such that they log their trees from a number of small Forest Service-selected tree timber sales of Western Hemlock, Sitka Spruce, Alaska Yellow Cedar, plus a bit of Prince of Wales Island's Red Cedar. They mill the logs themselves, and produce lumber to make kit houses. Tyler had enough lumber and equipment to keep some work going in every part of the operation except the important first log cuts.

"Sixty percent of the time I get to cut the trees down myself," Tyler said. "We lost the ability to make round logs into square forms. It was primary manufacturing, what we call our breakdown saw. We have our whole secondary manufacturing system running fine and we are out there filling orders with finished products."

Tyler said the secondary manufacturing entails drying boards and running them through the molder and plainer machines. Although these machines were close to the damage Tyler credits the Hoonah fire department with saving them.

"The generator shed was right there too," Tyler said. "About 20 feet away. They saved both those buildings. We are so thankful nobody was hurt."

Tyler stated he is looking at equipment to replace that lost and rebuild the structure, albeit smaller.

"I have very little insurance," Tyler said. "I don't have enough to rebuild what we lost by any means, I barely have enough to pay off existing loans against what we were working with ... but we are filling orders today and got more coming in."

Tyler also stated he hopes to have product for sale in a Juneau outlet within a few months.

• Contact Klas Stolpe at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.

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