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Fire threatened entire Dolores sawmill, owner says

Firefighters from SW Colorado battle blaze in frigid, windy weather

A fire in massive slash piles behind the Aspen Wall Wood sawmill in Dolores has been 100% contained, but county emergency officials estimated that it could burn for days – and up to a year if it engulfed a large sawdust pile.

The cause of the fire has not been determined. But fire officials suspect that it started on a smaller slash pile and was spread to larger piles by the wind, said Vicki Shaffer, public information officer for the Montezuma County Office of Emergency Management. She estimated that the fire covered a couple of acres.

The fire was reported about 7:38 p.m. Friday by passersby, who observed smoke and flames behind the gates of the Aspen Wall Wood property, 31405 County Road S.

Their call to dispatchers started a three-day firefight in cold, windy weather that shifted fire lines and hampered firefighters’ efforts.

Crews from the Dolores, Cortez, Mancos and Lewis-Arriola fire protection districts arrived on the scene. Mike Zion, chief of the Dolores fire department, took command of the fire Friday night.

Crews were assisted by Colorado Department of Transportation and bulldozers from Stone Sand & Gravel and Montezuma County, Shaffer said. The bulldozers created fire lines to contain the blaze, and CDOT posted highway signs and sanded the roadway to keep it clear for emergency vehicles, tankers and fire engines.

A fire burns in a slash pile at Aspen Wall Wood, 31405 County Road S, in Dolores.

On Saturday morning, firefighters kept the fire from spreading into Lost Canyon, north of the mill, Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said. They also kept the fire from a sawdust dump that could fuel a fire for months.

On Friday evening, Aspen Wall Wood owner David Sitton got word that smoke was rising from the slash pile at the mill.

He arrived with staff and crews from the Dolores Volunteer Fire Department.

Smoke was flowing out an enormous pile of aspen cuttings 30 to 50 feet deep, he said.

The cuttings, a waste product of the mill, are sold to locals as firewood.

Fire crews and mill staff dug into the pile to extinguish the fire, then pulled back for safety.

“There was a realization that the fire was burning deep in the pile, with a real risk that a cavity could form and cause a collapse,” Sitton said.

By 10 p.m., flames had risen to the surface of the pile, and fire crews worked overnight to contain the blaze. Firebreaks were built to keep it from neighboring property and the forested Lost Canyon, Sitton said.

On Saturday, snow fell all day, but the fire in the massive wood pile continued to burn. To keep it from the mill, bulldozers pushed the pile over a hillside.

Crews reached containment, and snowfall allowed crews to leave. Mill staff stayed to monitor the fire.

But about 6 p.m. Saturday, winds picked up and fanned the fire, Sitton said, increasing the fire’s footprint to 3 to 5 acres.

He asked Dolores firefighters to return, and the battle continued until 4 a.m. Sunday.

“It was a tough night – the whole mill was threatened,” Sitton said. “Losing the firewood pile is a significant loss, but we feel very fortunate. It could have been a lot worse.”

Water and fresh snow were dumped on spot fires that sparked around mill buildings, which contain wood products.

The temperature dropped, and winds kicked up around 10:30 p.m., forcing firefighters to shield themselves from blowing smoke and embers. Wind direction also shifted, creating new battle lines.

And because of the weather, crews struggled with freezing equipment. They could not roll up iced-up hoses, and had to return to their station to thaw them, Shaffer said Sunday.

According to the National Weather Service, the temperature in Dolores fell to 11 degrees – a wind chill of minus 5 degrees – by 10:30 p.m.

Slash piles burn at Aspen Wall Wood, 31405 County Road S, in Dolores.

Winds also carried embers across Colorado Highway 184 toward County Roads 31 and 32.

One resident reported embers landed in her yard, Shaffer said, but they were extinguished by fresh-fallen snow.

The fire posed no threat of spreading across the highway, Nowlin said.

“Thank goodness we got the snow,” he said. “We’re not too concerned about it spreading.”

Nowlin said Saturday night that the fire might have started days before it was discovered.

“You can’t put it out,” Nowlin said. “All we can do is contain it. ... It could burn for a year.”

By Sunday afternoon, Shaffer said fire officials had revised that estimate, mainly because the fire did not reach the sawdust pile, where they said a fire could burn for a year, and because the intense fires Saturday night burned some slash piles to the ground.

No homes, buildings or properties were in danger, Shaffer said, and no one was injured.

As many as 50 crew were at the scene during the peak of the firefighting effort, Shaffer said. Some crews returned to their jurisdictions in Mancos, Cortez and Lewis-Arriola, where they faced their own problems, such as vehicle crashes.

Going forward, crews will be on standby, and operators of Aspen Wall Wood will notify them when the fire picks up.

On Monday, Sitton said the fire continued to burn and might smolder for weeks or months. Mill operations have not been disrupted, he said, and his staff monitor the fire 24 hours a day.

“It is still burning, so we are not out of the woods yet,” he said.

He said it appears the fire started from spontaneous combustion caused by heat building up from decomposing sawdust and chips deep in the pile.

About Aspen Wall Wood
A fire that erupted Friday in a slash pile behind Aspen Wall Wood in Dolores was still burning Sunday.

Sitton purchased Aspen Wall Wood in Dolores in 2016. In 2017, he bought Dewayne Findley Logging and the Western Excelsior assets in Mancos and rebuilt the excelsior plant, which had been destroyed by a fire in May 2017. Its aspen inventory and some processing equipment had been spared.

Sitton and Sean Stafford own S&S Wallwood Inc., which is the parent company of Aspen Wall Wood of Dolores and Aspen Wood Products of Mancos.

The Mancos mill was rebuilt on a smaller scale than the Western Excelsior plant.

Although it would not produce the array of specialized erosion-control mats and wattle tubes that provided more than 100 jobs before the 2017 fire, the 35-acre site restarted with about 15 employees. Last year, Sitton said he had hired 30 workers, many from the former plant

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