The Mancos fire department responded to a report of the fire about 1 p.m., and quickly requested help.
“It was more fire than we could handle,” Mancos Fire Chief Tony Aspromonte said.
Aspromonte’s Mancos crews started out attacking the fire in the building, but the wind picked up and forced them into a defensive mode. They were forced to fight it from the outside.
By midafternoon, nine fire departments, and 45 to 50 firefighters, had responded to the Mancos department’s call, according to the Cortez Fire Protection District.
The Cortez fire department sent an engine and a ladder truck. The Dolores fire department also sent an engine. Engines were also reportedly heading to the fire from Pleasant View, Towaoc, Lewis, Fort Lewis, Rico, Los Pinos and Durango. The Farmington fire department also was sending a crew, according to Cortez Fire Chief Jeff Vandevoorde.
“We probably have got nine departments out there now,” Vandevoorde said about 3 p.m. “I’ve got a feeling they’re going to be out there a while.”
Western Excelsior workers were evacuated safely, fire officials at the scene said, and no injuries were reported.
Aspromonte said about 5:45 the fire was contained to the inside of the building, and that it hadn’t reached the massive piles of aspen logs. The fire started somewhere in the middle of the building, he said, and the cause had not been determined.
About 6 p.m., he wind was dying down and the temperature was dropping, allowing fire crews to begin entering the building to attack the fire from the inside, Montezuma County Emergency Manager Paul Hollar said.
He anticipated that crews might have the blaze under control in the early morning hours of Tuesday at the earliest. At that time, the top priority for crews was preventing spreading to the trailer court across the street from the mill at 900 W. Grand Ave.
Mancos Marshal Jason Spruell said the fire broke out in an old part of the building. It might have started in a tool shed, but he said he wasn’t sure.
Journal reporter Jacob Klopfenstein, reporting from the scene, tweeted about 3:30 p.m. that the roof was in danger of collapsing. At least part of it had collapsed by 5 p.m.
Hollar said about 3:30 that there was no concern about it spreading to another area.
Eight homes were evacuated from the trailer park across the street. Some residents were evacuated, Hollar said, because emergency responders didn’t know if the smoke contained toxic matter.
Residents and the town set up centers for the evacuees, and the town paid for pizza to be delivered to fire crews.
Town Clerk Heather Alvarez announced that the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in downtown Mancos would provide shelter for evacuees and that water and respirators would be available. The Montezuma County Health Department announced on its Facebook page that it was sending respirators and advised residents to close their windows and shut off their air conditioning.
The county health department also suggested that residents should clear “the area north of Western Excelsior and across the highway including the trailer park and motel.” It added that water pressure was expected to be reduced.
Members of Colorado State Patrol, the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Department and other agencies directed traffic near Western Excelsior. Leslie Dent, a retired firefighter from California who was in town to visit family, put on a green vest to help block off West Grand Avenue.
“I seen a need here, and I came over to help,” he said.
Gino Chavez, an employee at Western Excelsior, said he didn’t learn about the fire until he was on his way to work about 4:30 p.m., when he saw smoke.
“I freaked out,” he said.
Chavez said he had never heard of problems with fire at the plant before, so the disaster came as a shock.
Western Excelsior, at 901 Grand Ave. in Mancos, processes harvested timber to create erosion-control products such as shaved aspen, also known as excelsior. It also makes erosion control blankets and mats, and has been in business since 1977. The company has more than 100 workers and is the downtown’s largest private employer. The company is planning a big new construction project, which hasn’t started yet.
The company also has manufacturing facilities in Macon, Georgia, and the corporate offices are in Evansville, Indiana.
““We’re here for our residents,” said Mancos Mayor Queenie Barz. “This is a sorry day for Mancos. This will be a big detriment to the community and the county.”
Journal reporters Jacob Klopfenstein and Stephanie Alderton contributed to this article. The Journal will continue to update this story at The-Journal.com.