Plum Creek Begins Fiberboard Plant Repairs Following Explosion

Officials believe the Columbia Falls plant will reopen within a month

By Justin Franz

COLUMBIA FALLS – Plum Creek Timber Co. has wasted little time getting its medium density fiberboard plant up and running again following an explosion and fire on June 10. This week, workers and contractors were repairing belt lines and ducts destroyed in the fire and drying out machinery soaked in the effort to douse the blaze.

Tom Ray, vice president of northwest resources and manufacturing for Plum Creek, said the company is on track to restart the facility within a month. Until then, Plum Creek is selling and shipping fiberboard from its 10 million feet of inventory that is stored in the plant and was not damaged in the blaze.

The medium density fiberboard facility is made up of two production lines, one built in 1974 and another built in 2001. The plant annually produces more than 200 million square feet of fiberboard used in furniture, doors and flooring, among other items.

Within a few days of the explosion, company officials announced that an independent inspector determined the fire was caused by a “catastrophic bearing failure” on the raw material belt line running into the facility. The fire spread along the entire product line, igniting both the rubber belt and wood product. That fire then spread to a duct pipe above the line that ignited wood fibers inside, resulting in the explosions. Ray said while there were fire suppression systems on the belt line, the fire grew too fast for them to be effective.

“We’re making numerous changes to the (fire suppression system) to prevent this from happening again,” Ray said.

On June 19, more than a week after the blast, extensive damage could still be seen on the burned belt line. The exterior wall of the fiberboard plant was scarred and blown out of place, but Ray said it reacted exactly the way it should.

“While that damage looks bad, it did what it’s supposed to do, which is release energy (from an explosion),” he said.

While the explosion and fire caused a fair amount of damage, much of it was due to the 1.5 million gallons of water used to douse the flames. The water soaked critical computer systems and electrical motors on the fiberboard press line. When workers returned to the plant the morning after the blaze, they found nearly 10 feet of water in the pits below the fiberboard press lines. The submerged electrical motors have been removed and are being dried out and rebuilt or completely replaced. Ray said the company is still trying to determine the cost of the explosion, but noted it has insurance to cover both damages and lost production. Ray said Plum Creek is keeping its customers informed about the situation and hopes they won’t be impacted by lost production.

Safety manager Shauna Dunn said employees reacted appropriately when the explosion occurred. At the time of the blast there were 66 workers and two contractors in the building. The explosion was centered on the raw product line and in the ducts high above the production floor, where most workers are located, so few people were actually near the blast.

“Some people heard the explosion and thought it was a door slamming, but when they heard the next ones they knew something was up and evacuated,” Dunn said.

Initial reports said that there were more than 50 people unaccounted for at the plant at the time of the explosion, but Dunn said that was a miscommunication between Plum Creek and emergency responders. She said everyone was out of the building and accounted for in less than five minutes.