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Recent lumberyard fires bring attention to safety

Ahandful of lumberyards went up in flames in April and May, bringing attention to the need for prevention in the fire-prone LBM sector. Turman Sawmill in Hillsville, Va., where fire brought $150,000 in damages on May 27, was just the latest in a string of incidents that includes recent lumberyard fires in South Salem, N.Y.; Alsip, Ill.; Hoboken, N.J; and Cloquet, Minn.

There are no clear statistics on the incidence rate of lumberyard fires—the National Fire Protection Association hasn’t tracked lumberyard blazes specifically since 1998. But one risk management specialist said new technology and a greater emphasis on targeted housekeeping has, in his experience, helped the severity and frequency of fires to decline in the past few years.

The reason, said Randy Zellis, director of loss control for Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance, has been a greater ability over the last few years to provide targeted controls at wood product dealers. That most notably includes the number one cause of these fires—electrical problems.

“Now we’re spending more time evaluating electrical systems, engineering controls; that includes making sure the [circuit breaker] box is clean, dry, tight and secure,” Zellis said.

One way that fire prevention has advanced, Zellis said, is through the technology of infrared tomography. Now insurance companies can photograph wiring and breakers to search for areas that need to be maintained. Those zones might not have been recognized otherwise, he said.

“We scan the low-voltage equipment looking for hot spots. You can see if some of the switch gear or circuits are over-heated and make the necessary adjustments,” he explained.

Ron Biesold is deputy chief fire marshal for the cities of Des Moines and Federal Way, Wash. Biesold knows a lot about lumber—his region is a huge epicenter of the U.S. lumber industry—and a lot about fires.

Lumber companies have a lot to lose, and much of the products on one site are highly susceptible to fires. “As far as commodities that they can store, it’s just huge. If you were maybe a different kind of business, you’re limited to how much flammable liquid you can have out in use, but at some of these large lumberyards you can have hundreds and hundreds of flammable items—spray paints, all the gallon paint cans, some of it stays on the shelf for a long time.”

“I’ve been here for 32 years now, but when I was fairly new, we had one big fire I really remember,” Biesold said. “And it was hot enough so that you could actually see the lumber going up into the thermal column (the hot center of the large fire). It was actually picking up some of the wood and going up into the thermal column.”

Housekeeping is a major deterrent. That includes maintaining saws or electrical outlets, cleaning an area of flammable materials and making sure sprinklers are in working order.

Lumberyard fires can result in spectacular blazes—and equally spectacular damages.

“A lot of the engineered wood that yards have nowadays has a plastic or cardboard cover,” Biesold explained. “If you take that off and don’t dispose of it, and you have palettes lying around, you have a very combustible stack on your hands.”

Though drier climates are usually blamed for more dangerous fire conditions, Biesold said fires at lumberyards are not dependent on region.

“It’s something that happens everywhere, all the time,” he said. “I remember one fire at a site where they stored a lot of tarpaper, and no matter how much water we put on it, the [flammable material] would keep floating up to the top and reignite. You see the same thing at a lot of lumberyards.”

Fires can happen anywhere, even in weather conditions most inconsistent with sparking fires. As earlier reported in HCN, two large lumberyards in the Northeast had damaging fires over the same weekend in early April—Ring’s End Lumber in South Salem, N.Y., and General Lumber in Hoboken, N.J. Those fires occurred while the region was being drenched with record rain-fall. (Representatives from the two lumberyards did not return phone calls seeking comment.)

Sometimes fires are almost impossible to prevent. In the case of arson, a person intent on creating a disaster sometimes simply can’t be stopped ahead of time. But Biesold still recommends housekeeping as a measure to “not make it easy” for an arsonist on a spree.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), one of the most practical fire prevention tools is training—not only training employees to have good housekeeping skills, but also training employees on equipment and maintenance of firefighting equipment, like extinguishers.

“If you want your workers to evacuate, you should train them on how to escape. If you expect your workers to use firefighting equipment, you should give them appropriate equipment and train them to use the equipment safely,” read OSHA guidelines.

Educational programs for dealers often come from one of the other necessary sources of fire preparation—insurance. Representatives from associations like the Illinois Lumber and Material Dealer Association (ILMDA) and the Mountain States Lumber & Building Materials Association all referred to insurance companies for fire safety programming.

Barry Johnson, executive director of ILMDA, highlighted some of the reasons that fire safety — inside the spectrum of overall yard safety—also makes sound financial sense.

“One, the safety of your employees always comes first, and two, the safety of your property, of course,” Johnson said. “The third reason, and one that always tugs at your wallet, is there is real savings to the dealer that maintains a safe yard, whether that’s by preventing fires or [other accidents]. It behooves owners a great deal to put these kinds of measures in place.”

In the end, maintenance and education, cleanliness and keeping up with guidelines are imperative lines of defense against everything from lightning strikes to wayward firebugs.

“You look at a lot of lumberyards—they have treated lumber, feeder, composites, particle board—a lot of the stuff that burns pretty fast and furious,” said Biesold. “Pallets of lumber are what we use in our training facility because they burn so well. There aren’t really new products or things like that out there to prevent [fires]. The key thing is housekeeping.”

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