County declares mill fire an emergency disaster

Monday, June 26, 2017 3:32 PM
Fire engulfs the Western Excelsior Plant May 8. The Montezuma County commissioners passed an emergency disaster declaration to help businesses recover economic losses.

Montezuma County commissioners on Monday approved a declaration of an economic disaster in the wake of the Western Excelsior fire on May 8.

The fire that destroyed the Mancos mill caused the loss of 130 jobs and has hurt local retail businesses, along with subcontractors such as truckers and loggers who relied on the mill for their income.

The mill, owned by Western Excelsior Corp. in Evansville, Indiana, has not announced whether it plans to reopen.

The loss of the town’s biggest privately owned company has sent economic ripples throughout Mancos, said Montezuma County Emergency Manager Paul Hollar.

“The mill was a big economic driver,” he said. “It provided jobs and tax revenues, but it’s also depended on by local businesses who relied on mill employees to buy gas, go to restaurants and shop in grocery stores.”

Local schools might also take a loss, potentially losing students and consequently facing smaller budgets as families move away to find a job.

According to a study by Region 9 Economic Development District, the Western Excelsior mill generated $3.7 million in economic benefit within a 10-month period in 2015.

The emergency declaration states the county is “suffering serious economic damage from the fire” and that “employers other than Western Excelsior may be forced to lay off employees.”

David Sitton, of Aspen Wall Wood, of Dolores, said the mill fire impacts his business because it partners with Western Excelsior on aspen logging efforts. The two mills work together to divide the aspen trees logged, with smaller trees going to Western Excelsior for shredding, and larger ones going to Aspen Wall Wood to make paneling.

There are environmental impacts too. San Juan National Forest officials said they are concerned because they rely on Western Excelsior to buy aspen logging sales that thin out overgrown forests.

Western Excelsior is one of two aspen contractors on the Dolores Ranger District. The Forest Service awards the mill about 50 percent of the aspen offered per year based on sealed bids and proposals.

Western Excelsior has three open timber-sale contracts on the Dolores Ranger District totaling 672 acres and 2.47 million cubic feet of timber. Of the three sales, one is in the preliminary stage of being implemented, and two are close to being complete. The Dolores District typically offers two aspen sales per year that are roughly 200-300 acres in size and 800,000 to 1.2 million cubic feet.

“We are working with Western Excelsior on extending their current timber sale contracts to provide flexibility within their operation,” said Derek Padilla, Dolores District Ranger. “We have only a few local timber mill operations in the area, which are integral to the management of our national forests.”

The county’s request for emergency economic assistance is under review by the Colorado Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. A decision is expected in the coming weeks, and it could also be reviewed by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

If approved, the request for aid would open up opportunities for grant funding and low-interest loans for businesses to recover from losses caused by the mill fire, Hollar said. The Mancos Town Board also is considering whether to declare an emergency disaster.

The county commissioners – Keenan Ertel, Larry Don Suckla and James Lambert – voted 3-0 in favor of the emergency declaration.