By Monisha Martins
Watkins Sawmill was back in business on Monday two days after a fire destroyed a pair of buildings at the east Maple Ridge lumber operation.
Owner Ed Watkins promised the burned remanufacturing plant, which employs between 10 and 12 people, will be rebuilt.
Watkins’ log mill, which employs another 50 people, was not affected by the fire.
“We’ve already put a bunch of people back to work today,” said Watkins, who was first on scene when the fire broke out around 8:35 a.m. Friday.
“The main log mill is running and the treatment plant is back at work. We are going to put [the workers] in some of our other buildings to keep them employed and they will also help with the rebuilding and the clean-up.”
Firefighters from Maple Ridge, Mission and the North Fraser fought the fire long into Friday afternoon, containing it to two metal-clad buildings on the property and preventing it from spreading to an adjacent shake mill and treatment plant.
Founded in 1947 by Bill Watkins, Watkins Sawmills is still owned by the family and has operated its mill on Lougheed Highway at 288 Street for more than 60 years.
“It is scary for the people that work there,” said Jill Iacino, who works in the office across from the fire-ravaged building and watched as it burned to cinders. “They don’t work on Fridays so it’s a real good thing that there was nobody in the plant.”
Because of the stock of lumber inside the remanufacturing building, there was plenty fuel to keep the fire burning into the afternoon.
A black plume of smoke rolled into blue sky as flames raged two storeys high.
At the height of the fire, 14 fire trucks — nine from Maple Ridge, four from Mission and one from North Fraser — as well as 60 firefighters battled the blaze.
An Abbotsford fire service engine was dispatched to cover the District of Mission and the Pitt Meadows Fire Department attended calls in Maple Ridge while their crews battled the blaze.
Kerry Exner was welding at S&W Forest Products, a sawmill adjacent to Watkins, when office staff told him a building next door was in flames.
Exner, who spent 23 years as a Mission firefighter, ran to the Watkins mill, grabbed a fire hose and began to cool propane tanks and wet surrounding buildings on the property to stop the flames from spreading before fire crews arrived.
Several propane and acetylene tanks blew up in the fire and at least one fork lift was destroyed.
Meanwhile, Exner’s fiancée, Sheila Fourchier, made sure everyone had evacuated.
One of the buildings destroyed in the fire housed 80,000 litres of oil-based stain and solvents which posed a potential hazard if spilled into the nearby Stave River.
Because of the threat, the Ministry of Environment worked with the Maple Ridge Fire Department and Ridge-Meadows Search and Rescue to prevent contamination of the Stave.
Maple Ridge municipal works crew helped by erecting booms and sawdust berms to contain runoff water.
“To the best of our knowledge, the river was not affected,” said fire chief Peter Grootendorst. “Once the fire was controlled, the paint was allowed to burn off until the fire was fully contained. Smoke plume dispersion and wind direction were closely monitored by the Ministry of Environment during the incident to ensure the public was not in any danger.”
Vacuum trucks were brought in to remove 200,000 litres of contained runoff water from the site, so it could be safely disposed.
Watkins Sawmill has contracted a private hazardous materials company that is now responsible for cleaning up the site.
The cause of the fire remains unknown. A night watchman had patrolled the building around 3 a.m. Friday and employees were working near it around 6:30 a.m. but noticed nothing amiss.
“We are still trying to determine what the exact cause was. At this point, there is no reason to believe it is suspicious. It was an accidental fire,” said Grootendorst.