An investigation is to start this week to uncover the cause and origin of the fire that burned for nearly 24 hours at the Domtar Paper Co. in Johnsonburg over the weekend.
The industrial structure fire was called in to authorities around 12:30 p.m. Friday, and apparently broke out inside a conveyor tunnel than runs 1,000 feet underneath the mill along West Center Street in the borough.
Between 175 and 200 firefighters from roughly 25 area fire departments from six counties were on scene until around 11 a.m. Saturday battling the blaze, according to Johnsonburg volunteer fire chief Bob Dickey.
No one was injured in the fire, but Dickey said the extent of damage to the 125-year-old plant is not yet fully known.
Ridgway-based state police fire marshal Greg Agosti said “there is too much damage and collapse” for investigators to inspect the scene to determine what caused the blaze. According to Agosti, the Johnsonburg VFD requested an investigation on Friday, but safety concerns forced authorities to postpone an investigation until they can meet with mill personnel this week.
He anticipates an investigation will begin mid-week and will be a “lengthy process” and possibly dangerous.
“One of the things we’re concerned about is the collapse and the other is air quality below ground,” Agosti said. “We’re not sure if we can safely investigate until we get together will (Ridgway-based) state police and mill personnel. We’re coordinating with them and their insurance carrier.”
Dickey said the numerous firefighters on scene faced dangers and difficulties in battling the stubborn blaze Friday into Saturday.
“The difficulty was the fire being confined to the tunnel — the heat and smoke that was involved and also the length of the tunnel — it took a long time, and we needed a lot of manpower and equipment,” he explained. “It was a big one.”
According to Dickey, the need for so many firefighters came as a result of the extremely high temperatures in the long-confined space of the tunnel.
“Firefighters were going inside the tunnel to spray water and foam, and every couple minutes we had to switch them out because they were taking a beating with the heat and smoke and conditions traveling the distance through the tunnel,” he said. “We continually switched crews — one crew would come out and another would go in.”
Around 4:30 p.m. Friday, reports indicated firefighters were making headway and getting the blaze under control, but Dickey said around 5 p.m. the fire intensified for some reason. At that point, he called in several more fire departments for assistance.
It was then that thick black smoke could be seen emanating from several points in the area of the tunnel, which transports wood chips for various filtering processes before being turned into paper. Many area residents at the scene told The Era they were concerned the flames would spread to massive wood chip piles very near a tower that caught on fire, but it never did.
For the most part, it seems firefighters were able to contain the fire to the tunnel despite intensification on Friday evening.
“It just kind of took off,” he said. “Our crews got as close as they could, but the way that tunnel was built and the way things were burning, it was all they could do to keep it contained until additional manpower and equipment arrived on scene.”
United Refining Co. of Warren and other neighboring companies traveled to the scene to deliver more than 1,000 gallons of foam to help stifle the blaze, according to Dickey.
“The foam was necessary because — it being an underground tunnel — we were trying to blanket the flames with foam to snuff the fire out and prevent it from reigniting by keeping the oxygen out of the fire itself,” he said.
“The tunnel was more than 1,000 feet long — that’s what caused a lot of the problems and why we needed so much manpower,” Dickey continued. “Just by the enormity of the situation, we knew it was going to be very long, extended operations and we started calling for more resources immediately.”
He said the Elk County and McKean County emergency management agencies and a central Pennsylvania task force set up a command post.
“We started slowly releasing the companies that came from the farther locations around 3 a.m.,” Dickey said. “There were roughly 25 departments involved and that doesn’t include the mutual aid companies to cover the stations of those on scene. We had units from Elk, Warren, McKean, Cameron, Jefferson and Clearfield counties.”
Without the incident report readily available, Dickey tried to recount all of the departments which lent their assistance at the fire.
Besides Johnsonburg, departments included (but were not limited to) St. Marys, Ridgway, Clarion, DuBois, Punxsutawney, Jay Township, Emporium, Penfield, Mount Jewett, Fox Township, Sheffield, Cherry Grove, Clarendon, Kane, Wilcox, Port Allegany, Bradford Township, Lewis Run, Ridgway, Horton Township, Brockway, Bradford City and Warren City.
The scene was cleared around 11 a.m. Saturday, according to Dickey.
He said the plant was never evacuated, and actually kept running because the part of the facility that was on fire was isolated from the rest of the plant.
The paper mill is a major employer for the area with nearly 400 full-time employees, and it has the capacity to produce approximately 369,000 tons of paper annually.
Domtar took over the mill in 2007 from Weyerhaeuser, which acquired the mill in 2002. The facility has belonged to six different companies since it was opened in 1890.