‘Like an oven full of sawdust’
By Samantha Lyles
Local firefighters battled over nine hours to extinguish a blaze threatening the Darlington Veneer Mill, which employs more than 170 people in our community.
The initial call for help came in at around 6:35 p.m. Aug. 5, and first reports were somewhat vague, according to Darlington Fire Department Chief Pat Cavanaugh.
“The dispatch said there was some kind of fire in that area,” Cavanaugh says, adding that he noticed smoke in his Hoole Street neighborhood as soon as he stepped outside. “When we got there, there was a lot of heavy smoke coming from the roof and eaves of the sawdust mill.”
Located in the far rear corner of the mill’s 4th Street property, the sawdust mill is housed inside a large building measuring at least 15,000 square feet. Responding firefighters entered the building and extinguished flames on the plant side of the building — approximately two-thirds of the floorspace where machinery is located — then turned their attention to the remaining third, which is packed full of stored sawdust.
Cavanaugh says that trying to kill the fire burning deep inside that pile of compressed material required some heavy machinery.
“That thing was rolling and cooking. … It was almost like an oven full of sawdust,” Cavanaugh says. “We had to dig out about one-fourth of the pile with the city backhoe and the plant’s backhoe so we could start flowing water.”
When DFD called for assistance from neighboring agencies, Hartsville Fire Department sent over their tower truck, Palmetto Rural Fire Department sent additional firefighters, and Darlington County Fire District covered DFD’s station during the long night spent on scene. In total, about 40 firefighters teamed up to work the scene and man the station.
“We worked the fire from 6:35 that night until around 3:50 the next morning,” says Cavanaugh, noting that trucks flowed about 225,000 gallons of water onto the fire.
Not only are sawdust fires difficult to fight, they are notoriously easy to start. According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “Woodworking facilities are especially at risk for fire due to the abundant production of sawdust, which will ignite and burn far more easily than whole pieces of lumber. Sanders, routers and shapers in particular produce large amounts of fine dust. Very fine wood dust is especially hazardous,” so even home woodworkers are advised to clean up residual sawdust to reduce the risk of fire.
Although firefighters were able to snuff this blaze before significant damage occurred, the 102-year-old Darlington Veneer Mill has endured major fires in its past. In 1937, a devastating fire destroyed the #1 Plant facility and caused owners to question whether to rebuild. Another major fire in 1976 burned for over 24 hours and threatened the whole mill, but firefighters were able to prevent the blaze from spreading.
“I was there for the fire they had about 14 years ago, and that one was pretty bad,” Cavanaugh recalls, “but fortunately we got ahead of this one. We tore off the roof and removed the front tin so it could vent out and the heat wouldn’t stay trapped in the building. I think last time, a wall blew out, but this time we were proactive and jumped on it so that didn’t happen again.”
Since this latest fire only damaged the sawdust mill, reports indicated that business would only be interrupted for a few days while cleanup took place.