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Aspen Wall Wood fire continues to burn and smoke

Fire at sawmill started in decades-old waste pile

The slash fire at the Aspen Wall Wood sawmill yard southeast of Dolores continues to burn and smolder more than a week after erupting into a firestorm that required two days to contain.

The fire, which broke out Dec. 11 in a massive wood waste pile, remains 100% contained, said Mike Zion, chief of the Dolores Volunteer Fire Department.

It is expected burn for many weeks, possibly months, Zion said. Regular patrols are conducted by the fire department, and mill staff members are monitoring it seven days a week. The fire grew to 10 acres but has since reduced to 5 acres or less.

Extinguishing it is not feasible because of its location on a steep slope and because it’s burning deep within the 30-foot to 50-foot pile across several acres.

“The steep canyon side is just not accessible for equipment and would be a serious safety hazard,” Zion said.

As the wood burns away, it will reduce fire risk at the waste pile, which has been a concern for many years, he said.

Aspen Wall Wood owner David Sitton said he and staff members have implemented a plan to stir and spread the pile to help it burn out as quickly as possible.

“It’s been a challenge and will take time,” he said. “We’re trying to expose the fuel to oxygen so it will burn off faster.”

Thick smoke from the fire will likely continue to affect neighbors and mill workers.

“Neighbors are being smoked out. It’s horrible and unbearable,” said Lori Healy, who lives in nearby Lost Canyon, in an email. “That slash fuel is as dangerous as gas.”

She wants the mill to explain its fire safety plan and said increased fire prevention at wood mills is critical in the current era of prolonged drought.

“I feel this area could completely go up in flames so very easily,” Healy said. “As you can imagine, the last few nights have been terrifying as we look out our windows and see orange flames lighting up the canyon.”

The mill was spared structural damage and is fully operational. If smoke gets too bad, the mill will temporarily shut down until conditions improve, Sitton said.

“I feel for the homes in the area dealing with the smoke. We are doing what we can to expose the fuel so it will burn faster and end this,” he said.

Once it burns out, the mill will assess how to best manage wood waste from the mill, Sitton said.

“It will be an opportunity for us to reconfigure things and assess how to best deal with the issue long term,” he said.

The fire started in a decades-old waste pile that had been pushed over the canyon side. That method of dealing with wood waste has not been used for a very long time, Sitton said.

“A lot has changed. Nowadays, mills find a market for the waste material to control the volume,” he said.

For example, Sitton sells sawdust for use at horse racetracks and as horse stall bedding, mulch and an additive to cattle feed. The larger pieces of waste wood are sold as firewood. Sawdust also can be made into pellets for wood stoves.

A sawdust pile was protected from a fire at the Aspen Wall Wood sawmill last Friday. The sawdust is sold for mulch and can be made into pellets for stoves.

“We do as much as we can to reduce our waste to avoid accumulation of large piles,” he said. “The size of the sawdust piles ebb and flow depending on demand and the market.”

During the pandemic, horse tracks shut down, and demand for sawdust dried up. But the sawdust pile at the mill kept growing.

The market for the mill’s aspen paneling has been strong during the pandemic, as people stayed home and started home improvement projects, Sitton said.

Winter firefight

Zion said the Aspen Wall Wood fire was one of the larger ones the county has seen, but areas crews and agencies came together to get it under control.

Conditions were challenging.

It grew fast, and firefighters battled the blaze night and day in frigid, windy conditions during a snowstorm.

After the fire jumped behind firefighters on the wood pile, they pulled back and set up stationary hoses to douse it.

When firefighters deployed thermal imagery, it showed that the fire smoldering deep in the pile was much larger than originally thought. It might have been burning underneath for some time before erupting to the surface last Friday, fire officials said.

The fire exploded when it consumed wood piles that were pushed over the hillside to protect the mill.

“It was a heck of a battle. The wind was throwing embers everywhere, and it turned into a bit of a firestorm,” Zion said.

Firefighters’ hoses froze up, adding to the challenge. Water was drawn from hydrants at the mill, Road T.5, and the Tres Rios Public Lands Office.

By 4 a.m. Dec. 13, the fire was contained. About 50 firefighters were on scene.

Crews from the Dolores, Cortez, Mancos and Lewis-Arriola fire protection districts responded, as did the Colorado Division of Fire Safety and Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office. Montezuma County and Stone Gravel bought in heavy equipment to help in the firefight.

“The crews did a great job and worked together. It took the cooperation of the whole county,” Zion said. “When you ask for help in this county, you get it.”

jmimiaga @the-journal.com

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