Old mill torched in suspected arson

Sean C. Morgan

Sweet Home police charged a 13-year-old boy Sunday evening in connection with the fire that destroyed the former Weyerhaeuser and Willamette Industries planer mill at the east end of Tamarack Street Saturday afternoon.

Sweet Home Police Sgt. Jason VanEck said Charles Marvel, 13, was taken into custody as a result of witness statements. He was charged with second-degree arson.

Sweet Home firefighters responded to the fire at 2210 Tamarack St. at approximately 5:04 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 31.

They arrived to find a locked gate and the old building fully involved, flames towering over the property. They cut through the gate to gain entry into the property and begin battling the blaze.

The building was located directly south of the old office, located at the intersection of 22nd and Tamarack streets, just north of the railroad tracks and Bi-Mart. The fire and building were easily visible to a gathering crowd of onlookers along the east side of 18th Avenue.

Firefighters knocked down the largest of the flames within an hour.

Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District also responded to a reported fire at the same location on Friday at approximately 3:35 p.m. They located a small fire burning on the floor, which went out as soon as they put water on it.

Fire Chief Dave Barringer said the fire originated in a room inside the mill building. The free-standing room was a little to the south of the fire on Friday near the west end of the building, in the northwest third of the building.

Initially, the fire department had four vehicles pouring water onto the fire, Barringer said. After the initial attack, they dropped it to two.

“I would think it would be fair to say God was our best firefighter,” Barringer said. The heavy rainfall helped keep the fire down, and a southwest wind carried the column of smoke into the sky toward the northeast.

Meanwhile, Barringer responded with an engine to multiple reports of nearby houses on fire, he said, but no other buildings burned that night.

Sweet Home called for assistance from Marcola, Brownsville and Lebanon, Barringer said. That’s standard for a structure fire of this size.

“We kept somebody on the fire all night long Saturday night to keep the investigative chain of evidence intact,” Barringer said. That continued into Sunday.

The fire continued smoldering through Monday, and Barringer thought the building might still have hot spots for another 72 hours, unless the property owner, Linn County, started moving the debris around, which would release the heat.

“It was pretty straightforward,” Barringer said. Beside the fire watch, the fire district cleared the scene within 2 ½ to 3 hours.

Van Eck said an investigation by the Sweet Home Police Department is continuing.

Van Eck said Marvel was apparently one of a group of juveniles who visited the mill site to skateboard.

Marvel was transported to the Linn-Benton Detention Center.

A court hearing in his case was expected Monday, after which he could be released or remain in custody, Van Eck said.

Family Pallet Lumber operates nearby on the property.

Owner John Baskin, his son and employee Steven Norris quickly moved pallets of lumber away from the burning structures, and owner John Baskin said his business suffered no losses from the fire. The company employes eight people and continues to operate.

Baskin said the building was the old planer mill.

“There was nothing inside the building,” Baskin said. “It had all been stripped out.”

Western States Land Reliance Trust Managing Trustee Dan Desler had removed all of the equipment, wires and metal from the building.

The building, constructed in 1952 or 1953, had little value left in it, Barringer said. Even the timbers had little value because officials believe the roof contains asbestos, which means the timber couldn’t be reclaimed.

The property, the site of Willamette Industries’ Sweet Home Mill, is owned by Linn County. The county foreclosed on the property, a total of 380 acres, for nonpayment of property taxes for six years. Western States Land Reliance Trust owned the property and owed approximately $505,000 in taxes. The mill property included 153 acres.

Prior to foreclosure, Desler was indicted for air pollution for demolishing buildings and removing asbestos-containing debris from the site. He reached a plea agreement in the case. A half-demolished structure remains standing nearby.

Anyone with information related to the fire is asked to contact Officer Ryan Cummings or Sgt. Jason Ogden at (541) 367-5181.