Fire at plywood mill blamed on errors

Posted: November 2, 2017 at 1:01 a.m.

Demolition workers without proper fire-safety training started and accidentally spread the fire that raged for several hours at an abandoned plywood mill in south Arkansas this weekend, Crossett Fire Chief Bo Higginbotham said Tuesday.

Debris from the fire, which included insulation from the mill’s roof, remained spread across parts of Crossett on Tuesday afternoon, three days after the blaze.

Crews have been picking up insulation since Saturday afternoon, said Jennifer King, a spokesman for Georgia-Pacific, which owns the mill. Much of the insulation was caught in trees and has been blown by the wind onto the ground, she said.

The fire started about 9:30 a.m. Saturday before being contained by 4 p.m. and then put out, according to a report from the Crossett Fire Department. The fire prompted a response from numerous departments, the closure of U.S. 82 and the evacuation of nearby businesses.

On Tuesday, officials ended their investigation of the cause of the fire at the mill, which has not been in operation since 2011 and was being torn down.

On Saturday morning, workers for Houston-based GSD Cos., Georgia-Pacific’s demolition contractor, were using cutting torches and ignited a pile of wood debris, Higginbotham said. They then took a 500-gallon water tank that was on site and sprayed directly at the fire, extinguishing the flames that were directly hit with the water but pushing away the flames that were not, Higginbotham said.

“Usually if you spray directly into the fire, just a straight shot, it’ll put what you hit out, but kind of like wind, it will blow the rest of away,” he said.

That spread the fire toward old mill equipment with residual hydraulic fluid on it, he said. That’s an oily fluid, which caused the fire to spread onto roof timbers, he said.

GSD officials did not return phone messages Tuesday afternoon.

King said Georgia-Pacific began its own investigation of the fire Tuesday morning and that the company was not reconsidering its partnership with GSD.

Employees were inside the mill and exposed to the flames for about a minute before they exited the building and called the Fire Department, Higginbotham said.

The workers were untrained in fire safety, Higginbotham said, which is why they did not know not to spray water directly on a fire. Management also failed to acknowledge the hazards of using torches and grinders, which spark, in a wood-frame structure, he said.

Before the fire, Higginbotham learned that GSD had shut off access to water in the facility as a part of the demolition process. He said he asked company officials to turn the water back on, but they declined. He said he was assured that workers would be able to turn the water back on in the event of an emergency, but they were not, he said.

Higginbotham did not know why they were unable to, but he said having water in the building would have reduced the severity of the accident.

“It would have put the fire out right away, because they had sprinkler systems out there,” he said.

On social media, people in the Crossett area reported having trouble breathing during the fire and seeing debris end up on their lawns.

The Crossett Fire Department warned residents the fire was toxic, which Higginbotham said was a reference to the general toxicity of all fires.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Monday that it had opened an inquiry into the fire, looking for anything that might have contaminated workers.

On Tuesday, OSHA area director Carlos Reynolds said he had asked GSD to conduct the investigation.

When asked whether companies investigating themselves was standard procedure, an OSHA spokesman referred the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to a description of work-site incident investigations on OSHA’s website.

During an investigation, a company would look at what procedures were and weren’t followed and why, according to the description. Internal investigations enable “employers and workers to identify and implement the corrective actions necessary to prevent future incidents.”

The inquiry was the result of a nonformal complaint, which in this case was OSHA officials seeing a report of the fire in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A formal complaint is when an employee reports the incident to OSHA.

The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent workers to the site.

The Department of Environmental Quality did not send air monitors to the site to gauge pollution because the mill was not a chemical plant, said Stuart Spencer, associate director in charge of the office of air quality.

The EPA did not return a phone message left at the agency Tuesday afternoon.

The fire prompted a response from numerous departments, the closure of U.S. 82 and the evacuation of nearby businesses.