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Explosive fire at mill rattles neighbors, does little damage

An explosive boom and ball of fire caused by the quick ignition of sawdust at SierraPine Ltd. Thursday afternoon rattled windows and witnesses around the fiberboard mill at 2685 N. Pacific Highway, Medford.

"It really shook me up," said Debbie Wolf, manager of Abbey Funeral, directly across the highway from the mill.

She said she was sitting at her computer working at the funeral home when she heard an explosion and saw a flash out of the corner of her eye.

"The windows were shaking," Wolf said. "I was scared."

She turned and saw flames shooting 25 to 35 feet out of the top of a tower at the mill and quickly called 9-1-1.

The Medford Fire Department got the call reporting a structure fire at the mill at 1:02 p.m., Deputy Fire Chief Larry Anderson said. Firefighters rushing to the scene initially thought they heard that a "cyanide" tank might have exploded. However, as they planned how to respond to a leak of toxic gases, mill officials clarified that the storage unit in question held isocyanate, a resin.

Although the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health describes isocyanates as "powerful irritants to the mucous membranes" and notes that workers exposed to them can suffer eye irritation, nasal congestion, dry or sore throat, cold-like symptoms, cough, shortness of breath, wheezing or chest tightness, the mill's tank hadn't been breached.

Five fire engines from Medford and Jackson County Fire District No. — descended on the mill.

The mill's fire-suppression system and firefighters' quick response prevented the fire, which roared through a giant vacuum system that moves wood fiber through the mill, from spreading to buildings, SierraPine's General Manager Dan Sickler said.

He said the fire was started by a spark in a blender and sucked through a "pneumatic conveying system" into the system's large storage vessel known as a cyclone. Flames then shot from the top of the cyclone.

"The first ka-boom rattled everyone's attention, then there was another boom with fire on top of that stack," said Ed Randles, pointing to the mill across the street from the restaurant construction site where he was working Thursday afternoon.

An Avista Utilities employee, Randles was installing a gas meter at a Wild River Pizza under construction. He notified his dispatch center of the apparent explosion and headed over to check the gas meters and lines at the plant. Finding them all safe, he headed back to his assignment at the restaurant.

Firefighters worked through the afternoon using thermal cameras to track hot spots in smoldering sawdust; where problems were found, the sawdust was wetted down, Anderson said.

Sickler said production would be stopped at the mill for two or three days while workers cleaned up after the fire and made repairs to the vacuum system. He estimated the damage at less than $50,000 and said the lost production time would be made up.