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Strong mutual aid response helps control second-alarm fire at Somerset Maine Sappi mill

SKOWHEGAN, Maine (From news reports) -- A conveyor belt carrying shredded wood chips at a Skowhegan paper mill caught fire Saturday morning, Feb. 3, prompting a wide response from local fire departments.

Skowhegan Fire Chief Ronnie Rodriguez said the fire was initially reported around 9:15 a.m., with his department requesting "full mutual aid" minutes later. Units from five other nearby cities and towns responded.

"The fire involved the conveyor belt that took the chip material from where it was chipped to where they're going to process it," Rodriguez said. "A good portion of the conveyor belt lit on fire. It starts on the ground and goes about 150 feet in the air."

The blaze quickly engulfed the conveyor belt, the wood chips on it, and the wood in the "chip silo," Rodriguez said. No one was injured and the cause of the fire is not yet determined, he added.

"This is a wood processing facility," Rodriguez said. "So you have materials that are combustible, and when it's ground up in dust and particle form, it gets even more combustible. Everything gets coated in these particles and you'll have smoldering dust that gets on fire."

Crews had the fire under control by around 10:30 a.m., according to Rodriguez, though Skowhegan firefighters were still on scene at 3:30 p.m. "trying to reach and extinguish remote areas" of smoldering wood.

Though the fire was uniquely difficult to fight due to the height, size and nature of the woodchip escalator, Rodriguez said he was "extremely grateful" for the rapid response of first responders and mill employees who prevented injury and extinguished the flames.

"This was a pretty big one, but it could have been a lot worse," he said.

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