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Biomass apologizes

Biomass One has apologized for a wood-chip fire in White City that got out of control Sunday night and affected three other businesses.

"The Biomass One family would like to extend our regrets and apologies to Western Valley Cutstock and the other companies," said Kurt Lumpkin, manager of Biomass.

The fire damaged two adjacent buildings: one owned by Biomass and leased to Petrochem Insulation Inc., which has since set up operations in a nearby house, and one owned by Western Valley Cutstock, whose offices endured severe water damage. Cascade Wood Products, which is housed in the southern half of Cutstock's building, also had its operations disrupted when power was cut to the building.

Earlier reports said three buildings had been damaged by the fire, but Lumpkin said one of them, owned by Biomass, was saved by its own rooftop sprinkler system.

Ashley Lara, spokeswoman for Jackson County Fire District 3, said the investigation is ongoing. She said the fire district has no damage estimates.

Lumpkin also said he had no estimate of damages and wasn't sure when the affected businesses would have their operations restored. He said those issues are being handled by an insurance company.

Lumpkin said dry, windy conditions Sunday helped spread embers to the buildings as well as to a nearby field. He said his employees are always on the alert for a fuel-pile fire.

"We have been diligent, but the fire did happen," he said. "Evidently we need to dig into this further."

The 60-foot-tall wood-chip pile that covers several acres off Avenue G in White City provides fuel for a steam generator that produces enough electricity to power 25,000 houses. The pile is a combination of fine and large wood particles and contains 80,000 to 90,000 tons of dry fuel.

On Sunday, the pile ignited twice, at 2 and 5 p.m., and strong winds scattered embers to the southeast. Biomass is looking at other options to better address the issue of the pile catching fire. 

One option is to install a sprinkler system, which is currently used on a smaller wood-chip pile at another location at Biomass. The larger pile is hosed down manually by a Biomass worker. Lumpkin said the smaller pile is less susceptible to igniting.

He said the fuel piles are both carefully monitored by Biomass employees, who have fire hoses available to handle small fires. Biomass also has a dedicated radio to keep in touch with Fire District 3 if it needs assistance. On Sunday, Biomass employees alerted the fire district about the fuel-pile fire. The company employs 60 workers.

Lumpkin said Biomass employees will brainstorm other options that might prevent these kinds of fires in the future. 

"We may dedicate more people to exclusively fire watch on the pile," he said.

Lumpkin said it's not just a matter of pouring more water on a fuel pile to make it safer. In some cases, excessive moisture inside the pile can lead to decomposition, which creates gases that could lead to an even worse fire, he said.

"We have to get the right balance point," Lumpkin said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.