How it happened: The firefight at Western Excelsior

Friday, May 26, 2017 2:27 PM

Fire officials and dispatches paint a picture of a fast and intense fire at the Western Excelsior plant that smoldered unnoticed in an attic, overwhelmed first responders and strained water supplies and regional fire crews.

Within minutes of the factory alarm, the fire had already blown out of control, prompting a 911 call at 12:55 p.m. on May 8.

The fire burned hot and fast, fed by a stiff southern wind that fanned the flames as it blew in through large, open bay doors.

The limited Mancos water supply issue forced firefighters to run a line a half-mile to the Mancos River.

Investigators say a faulty ventilation fan in a sharpening shop located in the middle of the mill overheated or sparked in the attic, triggering the fire.

“How long it was smoldering in the voids of the attic is unknown, but it created superheated air that traveled through the upper ceilings, then sparked an almost simultaneous burnover throughout a lot of the building,” said Mancos Fire Department Capt. Ray Aspromonte, the incident commander for the fire.

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The mill employed 100 people, more than 40 of them from the town of Mancos. All workers were safely evacuated when the alarm went off, fire officials said.

About a dozen fire departments, including two from New Mexico, responded to the blaze, which destroyed the mill within four hours.

The mill harvests aspen trees from the San Juan National Forest, then shaves them to create a type of erosion-control mats called excelsior. Rolled mats were stacked in rows 50 feet high in the cavernous warehouse.

The mill, which lies partially within Mancos town limits and within Montezuma County, had no sprinkler system or fire inspections. Neither the town of Mancos nor Montezuma County requires them.

An unstoppable forceEyewitness accounts from local firefighters revealed difficult and quickly changing conditions.

“We knew pretty quick that we could not fight it from inside. It was too large, too fast to save the building, so we kept it contained,” Aspromonte said.

Shawn Bittle, assistant fire chief for the Cortez Fire Protection District, arrived with a crew about 1:30 p.m. The Cortez crews along with firefighters from the Dolores Fire Protection District entered the northwest warehouse entrance about 1:20 p.m. and tried to stop the fire from entering the main warehouse stored with stacks of excelsior.

“We attacked with two 2.5-inch lines, and our water was not affecting the fire,” he said. “It was that hot and intense.”

The stacks of excelsior and mill dust in the building created a massive load of combustible fuel for the fire. The composition and structure of the erosion mats — a thinly woven mesh of dry aspen — increased the combustible surface-to-mass ratio, making it burn faster and hotter.

“After about 30 minutes, the fire broke through the corridor, and we made the call for firefighters to leave the building,” Bittle said. “Within five minutes of leaving, there was a rollover in the warehouse where everything ignited at the same time. The massive fire was floor to ceiling.”

Two unmanned master streams of water were set up to continually pour water on the warehouse, and a deck gun from a fire engine hit the warehouse with water as well. Again, the water seemed to have no effect.

“It was thick smoke in the warehouse, with flames licking the ceiling. We did all we could to douse the oncoming flames, but it was too extreme and kept backing us up,” said Chris Barber, a Dolores firefighter who went inside. “Plastic barrels with a green fertilizer liquid that’s sprayed on the excelsior had melted and was running down the floor, and it covered our suits.”

The battle to save the officeAbout 2:15 p.m., Plant Manager Keith Van Pelt requested that fire crews save the administration office on the west side of the factory complex, where critical business and employee records were kept.

Cortez, Dolores and Mancos crews redirected 2.5-inch attack hoses to the office, but when they tried to enter, the wall separating the office from the warehouse area came down, revealing a “50-foot wall of fire.” Firefighters retreated, and broke out windows to vent the fire.

Meanwhile, on the northeast corner of the burning building, Pleasant View Fire Department crews were stationed to contain the blaze and prevent it from jumping Grand Avenue toward a residential neighborhood.

Water supply diminishesWater to fight the fire came from two hydrants on Grand Avenue, in front of the mill, and they operated well. But about 3 p.m., Mancos town officials asked incident commander Aspromonte to find another water source because the firefight had cut the town’s 400,000-gallon supply in half, and they needed what was left for residents.

A five-inch hose provided by the San Juan County Fire Department – based in Aztec, New Mexico – was deployed from a giant spool for a half-mile down Riverside Avenue and Spruce Street to a bridge over the Mancos River. Crews hooked together two 1,500-gallon-per-minute pumps together to draw from the river for the next six hours.

“Neighbors helping neighbors, that’s what rural fire departments do,” said San Juan County Fire Chief Craig Daugherty, who brought equipment and 17 firefighters to the firefight. “We are keeping Mancos in our thoughts.”

A relay pumper-truck halfway along the line on Riverside Avenue was put in place to keep the water pressure and volume strong on the way to the fire. Ladder trucks from Cortez and San Juan fire departments were set up on the northern and western sides of the building to douse the fire from 100 feet above.

By 5 p.m., the building’s support beams reached the failure point of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the building began to collapse.

“At that point, we had heavy equipment lift the roofing away, so the ladder trucks could douse the hot spots,” said Mancos Fire Chief Tony Aspromonte. “It’s tough, the mill employs a lot of people and is an important part of our local economy. Hopefully, the company will rebuild.”

Timeline: May 8, 2017

When exactly the fire began is unknown, but it triggered a smoke alarm shortly before a 911 call. Mill staff tried unsuccessfully to douse it with fire extinguishers and an emergency fire hose, but realized it had already grown significantly.
Investigators believe it started from a faulty ventilation fan in the attic in the center of the building complex and smoldered unnoticed, causing superheated air to build up throughout the attic and causing a flash-over fire in much of the building simultaneously.
12:55 p.m.: 911 call to dispatch from Western Excelsior
1:00 p.m.: The Mancos Fire Department arrives
1:16 p.m.: A call for mutual aid goes out to fire crews based in Cortez, Dolores, Lewis, Pleasant View, Rico, Farmington and San Juan County, New Mexico.
1:20 p.m.: Cortez and Dolores fire crews enter the building at northwest corner, as Mancos and Rico crews fight the fire from the southeast corner.
2:00 p.m.: The Pleasant View Fire Department arrives and contains the fire on northeast corner to prevent it from crossing Grand Avenue at the Monte Street intersection to a residential neighborhood.
2:00 p.m.: Incident commander Ray Aspromonte orders all firefighters out of the building.
2:05 p.m.: A flashover occurs in the warehouse, which is full of stacked excelsior product and superheated air and smoke.
2:15 p.m.: Plant Manager Keith Van Pelt asks firefighters to save the administration office on the complex’s west side. Crews venture inside, but back off after seeing a 50-foot wall of flame.
3:00 p.m.: The town of Mancos asks incident commander to find a new water source because the firefight has cut the town’s water supply by half.
3:15 p.m.: A 5-inch water line is laid down for 2,400 feet to the Mancos River, eastward on Riverside Avenue and southward on Spruce Street.
5:30 p.m.: Two 1,500-gallon-per-minute pumps draw water from the river to the fire. Pumping continues until 1 a.m.
5:00 p.m.: Main metal beams begin to fail, and the building starts to collapse in multiple areas.

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Sam Green/The Journal

The office building at Western Excelsior is destroyed and still smoldering Tuesday morning.