By Callie Hietala
A fire broke out in the early hours of September 21 at the Southern Finishing Co. in Martinsville.
No one was injured in the incident, and employees reported to work at the facility Tuesday morning.
Martinsville’s Fire Chief/Fire Marshal Ted Anderson said emergency crews arrived at the manufacturing facility, located at 801 East Church Street, around 3:30 a.m. Tuesday after receiving a call from a night shift staff—either a maintenance worker or security guard—who was on site at the time of the blaze. Flames were visible on the roof of the dust bin area of the large hopper where the company stores sawdust when emergency crews arrived, Anderson said.
Firefighters pushed the fire back into the hopper to keep the blaze from spreading to the rest of the building, he said. Crews worked on both sides of the fire and on the roof, helping to empty the hopper of sawdust and stop the fire. The company brought in some heavy machinery to help move the sawdust.
“It’s still burning inside of the hopper, but it is contained, and we were able to allow the facility to continue work today,” Anderson said at the site Tuesday.
Anderson said it is believed that an accumulation of sawdust on top of the dust bin itself caught flame when a spark from one of the chimneys fell onto it.
In addition to Martinsville Emergency Services, Anderson said help came from Henry County Public Safety, the Martinsville Police Department, and many local volunteer fire departments, some of whom had to leave the site to go to work after a long night of fighting the fire. He added that Martinsville called their 7 a.m., or C shift, in early, and brought more crew members back to help cover emergency calls as needed.
At its highest point, nearly 25 firefighters from both city and county battled the blaze and helped contain it.
The sawdust added an extra element of danger to the firefighting process.
Southern Finishing uses the sawdust they create as fuel, Anderson said. “What they cut off of the wood, they use as fuel to help run the mechanisms inside of the plant.”
However, there is a science to the sawdust and how it is mixed to make it more, or less, combustible, he said, and added the mixture in the hopper was half regular sawdust and half of what was described to him as “fluff,” which makes the mixture more explosive.
“Which is part of what we have to keep in mind with this,” Anderson said, and added that if firefighters had managed the incident differently, the already dangerous situation could have quickly turned deadly.
“If we’d just gone in and opened the lid to put water down in there, it could have very easily exploded,” Anderson said.
The company has new machine coming in next week which will burn the sawdust at higher temperatures that will be less likely to emit any sparks from the chimneys, thus reducing the chances that a similar sawdust fire would happen again, he added.