Fire Chief: Wood Dust May Have Caused Plum Creek Explosion

By Beacon Staff

The Columbia Falls fire chief says wood dust is the likely cause of Tuesday afternoon’s explosion and fire at the Plum Creek Timber Co.’s fiberboard plant. Company officials however say the cause of the blast is still under investigation.

“Fine wood is a combustible material and if you get a spark it will light just like natural gas,” Fire Chief Rick Hagen said Wednesday afternoon.

Hagen said wood dust fires and explosions are not uncommon and the Columbia Falls Fire Department has responded to smaller wood dust explosions at the plant in years past. A wood dust explosion killed two workers and injured 20 others at a sawmill in British Columbia in January 2012, while a second British Columbia wood dust explosion killed two workers and injured 22 others in April.

Most fiberboard plants have safety systems that prevent such explosions but Hagen said it’s possible for a situation to “outrun” the censors.

On Wednesday, Plum Creek began assessing the damage of Tuesday’s blast and spokesperson Kate Tate said the fiberboard plant would be closed for at least a month. She said the company would have more information for the 185 people who work in the plant later this week. The company’s Columbia Falls sawmill and plywood mill were operating as normal on Wednesday.

More than a dozen emergency agencies from around the Flathead Valley responded to the explosion that occurred shortly after 3 p.m. Tuesday. Initial reports said that more than 50 people were missing but all of the workers were later accounted for. No injuries were reported.

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