Montesano sawmill destroyed in raging inferno

MONTESANO, Wash. - A four-story sawmill was destroyed in a massive fire that lit up the skies Saturday night over Montesano in Grays Harbor County, officials and witnesses said.

And now, in the fire's aftermath, about 100 workers at the Mary's River Lumber Co. are left wondering if their jobs are secure.

Firefighters from around the region responded to the Saturday night inferno at the sawmill, located on Highway 107, just south of Montesano.

But there was little they could do to save the mill, which is one of the major employers in the area. Instead, crews focused their efforts on preventing the flames from spreading.

A security guard initially spotted the fire and called 911. But the blaze quickly spread to piles of wood chips, which fueled the flames. Within minutes, towering flames were pouring from the building.

As the massive fire spread, the roof of the sawmill collapsed. The interior of the plant is gutted.

"You could definitely feel the heat, and you could see the plumes of smoke, and the ash. ... The conductors were starting to arc," said one witness.

No one was injured in the blaze. But the interior of the sawmill is gutted, and the company is out of business for now.

"It's an absolutely sick feeling - this is a big part of our lives," says General Manager Terry Smith. "We spend a lot of time here. It's virtually watching part of your home burn."

For other employees, it's not about feelings - it's about the paycheck,

"Jobs are hard to come by around here right now. There's not that many to be had," says worker John Odegard. "I'll have to wait and see. I'll have to be looking for a new job for all I know."

Even the fire chief felt a pit in his stomach as he was directing his crews throughout the night.

"When you come up to something like this, absolutely, your heart sinks a little bit," he says. "It's devastating. This is a small community, so it's going to be felt throughout the entire community."

The silver lining in the dark cloud hanging over the town is that firefighters did a commendable job keeping the fire confined to just the sawmill building.

Other major portions of the operation are untouched. The logs are safe. And hundreds of tons of finished product are clean and ready for shipment.

"We'll deal with it. We'll figure it out, and we'll go on and we'll fix it," says Smith. But he couldn't estimate when operations might resume.

Fire officials say they don't yet know what sparked the blaze, but it does not appear to be suspicious.