$1.75 million fire at Santiam Forest Products

A three-alarm fire at midnight Sunday morning at Santiam Forest Products destroyed more than $1.5 million in finished lumber, a $250,000 building, shot flames an estimated 500 feet into the night sky and sent burning embers as far away as Rowell Hill Road.

Fire Chief Mike Beaver said the Sweet Home skyline looked like a “volcano had gone off” when he saw the flames at 12:17 a.m.

Believed caused by transients smoking in astorage building, the fire drew firefighting teams from Halsey, Brownsville, Tangent and Lebanon in addition to a full complement of local firefighters from Sweet Home and Crawfordsville according to Chief Beaver. The Oregon Department of Forestry sent staff and equipment to the scene as well.

Although large packages of finished products had their plastic wraps singed away, the fire was contained in one major area of the yard. Firefighters returned Sunday to the scene where they ensured it did not spread. Monday morning, crews remained on site, hosing down the debris.

“We’re going to put this fire out today,” Chief Beaver told business owner Ted Fullmer.

Fullmer called Jim Philpott of nearby business Lester Sales which sent over a small bull dozer to scatter the materials and allow firefighters to douse them more effectively.

Fullmer said he was awakened by the sound of fire alarms Sunday morning and said he was startled by how close the flames seemed when he looked out his home’s windows.

“When I came down about 12:30 a.m. I just freaked out,” Fullmer said.

No crews were working at the time and no one was injured battling the blaze. Firefighters from Crawfordsville said the sky over Sweet Home glowed from the roaring flames.

Fullmer said two young men may have prevented the blaze from spreading into the main plant. He said that Brad Furst and Gabe Gradjiola reportedly saw burning embers in the building and used an extinguisher to put them out before they spread further.

“They went into the building and knocked out the fire before it got out of control,” Fullmer said Monday morning.

“Firefighters did an awesome job, just awecome,” Fullmer said. “There’s no reason this fire should not have spread into the plant.”

Fire Chief Beaver said he was on the scene within two minutes of the 12:17 a.m. call.

“We had an engine on scene in minutes and the Crawfordsville unit was diverted to Lester Sales.

An estimated 50-60 firefighters battled the blaze on site, at Lester Sales and at small spot fires in a nearby trailer park and on Nandina.

“We had more than 25 pieces of apparatus to control the fire,” Chief Beaver said. “We sent a brush unit to the fires on Nandina and the second time they spotted up, the homeowners took garden hoses to them.”

The impact of Saturday’s extreme heat on the firefighters, about 95 degrees, was mitigated somewhat because the fire was outside, at night and in an open area, Chief Beaver said.

“This is the type of fire where you deluge the flames,” Chief Beaver said. “We used big deck guns and big water to fight this fire.”

Chief Beaver said the goal in fighting this type of fire is to contain it.

“We pumped lots and lots of water,” Chief Beaver said. “One unit pumped at least 75,000 gallons. We pumped hundreds of thousands of gallons overall.”

Chief Beaver said the local fire department hasn’t battled a blaze of this magnitude since the Holley Moulding fire approximately four years ago.

Local fire agencies work extremely well together on mutual aid, Chief Beaver said. All work within an incident command system, he said.

“We had an engine, water tender and tower from Lebanon, an engine and tender from Brownsville,” Chief Beaver said. “We had all five of our engines committed, one at Lester Sales and four on site.”

Chief Beaver said the local departments can’t really prepare for a fire of this magnitude.

The cost of the event is born by the individual agencies, Chief Beaver said.

“That’s what people pay taxes for,” he said. “I haven’t even begun to figure out what this cost us.”

Spot fires at Lester Sales

Nearby Lester Sales, which manufactures cedar shakes and sells lumber, battled spot fires throughout the night.

Jim Philpott said he received a call about 12:45 a.m. and when he looked out the window of his home high atop Fern Ridge Road, the night sky was glowing.

“We had fires everywhere,” Philpott said. “The burning embers were landing in the sawdust and on the roofs. Every roof had a spot fire on it.”

Firefighters from Crawfordsville worked diligently to control the fires and Cascade Timber Consulting sent down its foaming equipment operated by Milton Moran.

“We foamed everything,” Philpott said. “It worked. We dropped thousands and thousands of gallons of water and foam.”

Philpott’s brother-in-law, Larry Lester, was camping when he received the call from his sister-in-law about the fire.

His stepson, Toby Fortner and a friend prevented a large deck of cedar logs from becoming enflamed by pouring water on it with a 55 gallon garbage can.

“I bet we had 100 spot fires,” Philpott said. “The guys from Crawfordsville and Milt really have to be commended for how hard they worked and helped out.”

The only major fire at the Lester site was two pallets of baled cedar shavings that were singed.

Monday, remnants of the burning embers spotted the company’s asphalt parking lot. Included were roofing nails carried when the burning building’s shingles were carried by the wind.