Firefighters spent more than 12 hours battling a blaze at the Elite Forest Products mill in Malakwa on Thursday.
“It’s big,” said an exhausted Sean Coubrough, Columbia Shuswap Regional District fire services co-ordinator, attempting to estimate the size of the structure fire at the mill he and Malakwa, Swansea Point and Sicamous fire crews spent the day getting under control. “It’s bigger than I’m used to estimating… I’d say it looks like two football fields in length and maybe one of them burned.”
Coubrough said firefighters were paged around 5:45 a.m. on Thursday, March 9, and Malakwa firefighters were first on scene at the mill, located off Lybarger Road.
“When we arrived on scene… we had quite a large building partially involved, with flames showing and smoke showing…,” said Coubrough. “It was venting through the roof with heavy black, thick smoke.”
Coubrough said it was quickly learned the mill wasn’t operational, and there was no else onsite, leaving firefighters to focus their effort on a defensive attack of the exterior.
“We were not going inside the building – by the time we had arrived, the structure was compromised to a degree that it was not safe for us to put crews inside…,” said Coubrough. “We called it, ‘hit it hard from the yard’… Preventing the spread was our number one priority.”
Coubrough said there were some issues with access, as the roads into the mill hadn’t been plowed and were tricky to navigate. Also, a fire control system onsite was not operational, meaning water had to be hauled to the scene.
“We were forced to do shuttle runs with our tenders, running back and forth grabbing water, dumping it into a bladder and then sucking it up into the trucks,” explained Coubrough. “There were some concerns with getting water, but once things were set up it was working pretty well.”
The attack continued throughout the day. At about 4:30 p.m., Coubrough said the fire was under control and crews were in the mop-up stage.
“The fact it’s structurally compromised, we won’t be putting crews in to do a proper structural overhaul, we have to do it from the outside,” said Coubrough. “It’s going to leave a few hotspots, but nothing to worry about at this point in time. The manager of the mill will be put on a fire watch, that means we’re asking him once every hour to take a look around and if he does notice it start spreading, he can give 911 call and get us back out here.”
Despite the size and intensity of the blaze, Coubrough said firefighters were still able to save half the structure and some heavy equipment within.
“About half of the building we were able to save, which, considering the extent of the fire when our crews arrived on scene is no small feat,” said Coubrough, adding the site’s manager, Ray Hansen, seemed pleased, having expected a complete loss.
A smaller structure at the Elite Forest Products mill caught fire in 2015.