By Janneli F. Miller
The concept of “fire season” is disappearing. Thanks to climate change, fires can break out year-round through much of the West, as evidenced by two wildfires in Montezuma County that happened in March, as well as recent fires in Boulder County.
“We don’t call it a fire season anymore,” said Montezuma County Emergency Manager Jim Spratlen. “The conditions that we’re seeing are pretty dangerous. It’s drier – the water moisture levels are low. We’re seeing this trend right now, of course, but it’s not going to go away.”
Wildfires can be sparked by a number of things, most well-recognized.
But one cause that may be under the radar for most citizens is the spontaneous combustion of mulch and wood-chip piles. That triggered both the Aspen Wall Wood fire in December 2020 and the Western Excelsior Fire in May 2017 in Montezuma County.
The Western Excelsior plant near Mancos was destroyed by the fire there, impacting the local economy through job and production losses.
The Aspen Wall Wood fire near Dolores took three days to be contained and then smoldered for months, even though firefighters kept it from moving into Lost Canyon. Although it didn’t destroy property, it impacted air quality for those living nearby.
Ironwood Mill, located at 27930 Road T, Dolores, has the largest chip pile in the region – estimated to be between 3.5 and 4 acres, with a maximum height of 60 feet and average height of 35 feet, according to information provided to the Montezuma County Commissioners by Ironwood Group.
The Aspen Wall Wood fire happened in a chip pile about two acres in size – half the size of the Ironwood pile.
Ironwood Group CEO Jeff Bunnell of Oregon bought the old Montezuma Plywood Company plant on County Rd. T in 2019, with the intention of producing plywood veneer there from small-diameter trees.
This was seen as a boost to the local timber industry and local economy, as well as a way to improve forest health through thinning of trees. But the mill owners riled up neighborhood residents when they applied for a High Impact Permit with plans to extend hours of operation to 24/7 and bring in a housing unit. The Montezuma County Commissioners looked into the concerns raised by citizens.
At their Jan. 25, 2022, meeting, after holding a public hearing on the issue, the commissioners revoked High Impact Permit #675 and Special Use Permit #7-2019, ceasing operations at the mill.
According to the BOCC minutes, the revocation of Ironwood’s permits was “based on significant adverse conditions presented to the surrounding properties and also significant fire danger.”
“We asked them for a plan [to mitigate fire risk] and the plan that they submitted, we sent back with comments,” Montezuma County Administrator Shak Powers told the Four Corners Free Press. “They did not respond appropriately and that is why we revoked their permits.”
The commissioners sent the Ironwood Group a letter on Dec. 17, 2021 stating that the mill “is currently violating several provisions of the Montezuma County Land Use Code and is in violation of the terms of the High Impact Permit that was granted to Ironwood by The BOCC on October 8, 2019.”
In that letter the commissioners asked that Ironwood provide the county with a “written mitigation plan” by Jan. 5, 2022, noting that if the plans were not satisfactory or if Ironwood owners were not complying with the plan, their permits would be revoked – which is what happened.
Citizens with properties adjacent to the mill had been voicing concerns to county officials about the impact of mill operations on the community. (See the December 2021 issue of FCFP).
While revocation of the permits to operate prohibits the mill from continuing to produce more wood chips, there is currently no plan in place for the removal of the existing pile.
Powers explained that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has become involved. “They have corresponded with them and given them a time frame to respond,” he said.
Dolores Fire Protection District Chief Mike Zion confirmed this, telling the Free Press, “The CDPHE came down and inspected the pile in February of this year, and said they had to have it in compliance by June 15, 2022.” He said that CDPHE specified that the pile has to be completely removed from the site as of that date.
John O’Rourke, of the Compliance Assurance Unit of the Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division of CDPHE told the Free Press in a phone interview that usually the state does not get involved in the regulation of sawmills, but in this case the state had received complaints about the “excessive level of wood chips and sawdust” on the site.
O’Rourke inspected the pile on Feb. 1, 2022, and sent a compliance advisory to the mill owners. He confirmed the compliance date of June 15, 2022, sending the Ironwood Group a letter on March 10 stating that the mill had to cease creating more waste.
“When someone does get a compliance advisory, we ask them to contact us within 45 days to schedule a conference and talk about the issue and come up with a path forward they can live with,” explained O’Rourke. “June 15 may not be realistic for them but it’s just kind of a starting point to try to get them responding to the issue.”
He noted that currently they are still within the 45-day period, which ends May 24, adding that, “I did get an email from Wade Bentley that said they or their attorney would respond.”
Bentley is the plant manager for the Ironwood Group LLC and was in attendance and presented Ironwood’s response to the commissioners’ letter of Dec. 17, 2021, at the Jan. 11, 2022, BOCC meeting.
But neighbors remain troubled.
Lana Kelly of the Circle C RV park, which is adjacent to the Ironwood Mill site, told the Free Press, “What we want to know is, how much danger are we actually in right now? We’re living under a ticking time bomb here. They’re not mitigating it, they’re out of compliance with the county land use code — what they have is a huge risk, and we want information.”
However, little information was publicly available at press time regarding what Ironwood is doing to mitigate the fire risk of the large pile.
Bentley did not return phone messages from the Free Press.
Going to the landfill?
At the Jan. 11 meeting of the BOCC, Bentley told the county commissioners that Ironwood would take some of the chips to the county landfill.
Landfill Manager Mel Jarmon explained to the Free Press in a phone call that as of the end of March, “We have not received anything. They were going to bring us some of their wood chips, but nothing has been received yet.
“We cleared a space for them but it’s still empty. They never showed up and we haven’t heard from them.”
The “Plan for Chip Pile at Ironwood” submitted by the Ironwood Group to the BOCC stated, “As of 12-20-2021 there will be 100% weight documentation on every truck or trailor [sic] leaving the site with logs and chips.” Neighbors say they have not noticed any such traffic.
The plan also states, “On 01-03-2022 we will start Mitigating a fire bearier [sic] of 90’ from the biomass pile on the west side of the pile looking toward the mill from pile. (Road T side of the pile) There is only one person on site. This should be complete by 01-07-2022.”
Again, neither neighbors, fire or county officials nor the sheriff’s department said they have observed or received documentation that this has taken place.
“Something needs to happen and it’s not,” Zion said. “I don’t know why they’re just ignoring it. I wish the deadline from CDPHE was quicker.”
What are the chances of the chip pile at the Ironwood site igniting? Nobody knows. Chip piles ignite due to different things, including lightning, cigarettes, wildfire, arson, vehicle sparks and spontaneous combustion, which is not unusual.
Wood chips stored in piles decompose because of bacteria, moisture and heat, and during the decomposition process, heat is generated.
This heat becomes trapped within the pile, which continues to “self-heat” until it may eventually reach the ignition temperature.
The longer a pile is allowed to sit, the more heat will build. If the interior of the pile is exposed to oxygen the risk of spontaneous combustion is extremely high, and since the woodchips are a fuel source that is able to generate its own heat, the risk of a small fire quickly becoming out of control is high.
According to The Hartford Insurance Risk Engineering Technical Information Paper, “Mulch and wood chip pile fires are reported annually in every state.”
Prevention of spontaneous combustion of large chip piles is of utmost importance. Early detection of fire is key, which includes monitoring the temperature of the piles.
Zion mentioned that after the Aspen Wall Wood fire, “the county bought probes for all the sawmills. They [Ironwood] have at least one temp probe and they’re supposed to be running the probes now.”
However, he said that during a site visit to the mill in the summer of 2021, “We went out there and asked them about it [temperature probe], and they didn’t know what it was.”
This was also a concern expressed by Kelly.
“We want to know if they’re getting temperature probes – are temperature probes being done? We’re under the impression that they are not submitting reports. Does anyone have this information?”
Although Ironwood is supposed to report temperature probe results, to date there is no public record of whether or not the probe they have is being utilized, or whether results of the probes are documented.
Zion inspected the site in the fall. “We dug down about a foot on a cold day and the temp was 80 – on a cold day!” he said.
His concern was not only what will happen as the hotter, drier time of year approaches, but also about attempts to mitigate the pile.
Guidelines from the National Fire Protection Association state that in addition to routine temperature monitoring, on-site water access and ample fire extinguishers, piles should not exceed 60 feet in height, 300 feet in width or 500 feet in length; should be separated from one another by approved fire apparatus access roads; have low barrier walls around their perimeters, and have a minimum of 15 feet between them and other structures. None of this is documented to be happening at Ironwood.
Zion worries about what might happen if the Ironwood Group does start attempting to reduce the size of the existing pile. “If they disturb it – if they put oxygen into it. . .” he said, his voice trailing off.
Kelly and other neighbors who live near the Ironwood site have been meeting regularly to share information and updates about the pile.
“We’re all scared. We all have a lot of anxiety,” she told the Free Press. “If this thing goes up we’ll be lucky to get out with our lives – and it would be very catastrophic for the entire area.”
Cortez Fire Protection District Chief Jay Balfour told the Free Press that he thought a fire from the Ironwood pile would most likely move uphill towards Dolores rather than toward Cortez.
“Fires typically don’t move downhill,” he said.
He noted that the mill is outside the Cortez Fire District, whose boundaries end at County Road R. “Prevailing winds are not in our direction,” he explained, but said of course if a fire broke out at the Ironwood pile, his department would respond as a part of the mutual aid agreements between fire districts.
He said he has been receiving calls from concerned residents. “Basically I try to provide feedback and information.”
Powers was also aware of the winds, telling the Free Press, “Our prevailing winds generally come out of the southwest. Where Ironwood is located, the winds are blowing to the northeast. It [a fire] could be in the town of Dolores in a matter of minutes.”
Spratlen concurred. “Having a biomass pile of that size is not making me happy,” he said. “We’re preparing for the worst. Aspen Wall Wood was a smaller pile and a different type of material. We are concerned that if that the wind picks up and blows, those embers can fly just about anywhere. We are afraid it will start blowing to the Dolores area. If that thing goes, it would be pretty quick. I’m sure we should start evacuating right away so if it burns, it will burn property, not people.”
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin voiced his concerns at the Jan. 25 BOCC public hearing and also told the Free Press that his first concern is safety of county residents. He urges all residents to be proactive about the possibility of wildfires anywhere and make an evacuation plan.
Nowlin is not so sure that if a fire broke out at the Ironwood chip pile it would go quickly to Dolores, stating that it could go anywhere.
“The area around County Road T and T.5 has always been prone to lightning strikes,” he said, adding, “It doesn’t matter where the fire could start.”
“Everyone in the county should plan ahead. Know what you are going to do with your pets. What about your livestock, your important papers, your valuables?”
Nowlin said he will be going house-to-house in the area near the mill at the end of March and first few weeks of April to let people know what they can do to prepare themselves for evacuation in case of fire, how to protect their property, and who to call for more information.
Nowlin recommended that county residents with smartphones get an app called Nixle as well as the Montezuma County Sheriff’s mobile app (both available on Google Play or the app store.)
He told the Free Press that any information in case of fire, evacuation or any emergency will be broadcast through those avenues. He was concerned about getting in touch with people who don’t have cell phones, or live in areas without cell or internet service.
“You have to be proactive,” he said, recommending that people stay in touch with each other or with his department.
Spratlen agreed. “The county government is trying our best to get our arms around this, and then it’s up to everyone else,” he said.
“Get ready yourself. People need to get busy preparing. You may only have five or ten minutes, and that means you have to grab and go. You want to feel like you’re prepared. Pull a drill – do a drill yourself.”
His Emergency Management Department has been conducting drills, along with the sheriff’s office department and the fire districts.
“We’re having exercises, we’re speaking with neighbors, we’re all talking with each other,” Spratlen said.
Balfour and Zion both mentioned that they had been participating in the exercises and that they are confident they’ll be able to respond quickly and efficiently if a fire does ignite at the chip pile.
This issue “is very high-priority on everybody’s radar,” Powers said. “At this point it’s mostly in the hands of CDPHE. If they don’t get results, the commissioners will decide what to do next.
“I know that neighbors would love us to roll in there and just start moving it, but you can’t just roll into somebody’s property with trucks and heavy equipment without their permission. It’s private property.”
The BOCC holds frequent executive sessions about the situation at the mill, with the most recent on March 29. They too are waiting to see Ironwood’s response to CDPHE.
Nowlin explained that the more individual citizens do ahead of time, the better he and his department can respond.
“I want you to plan ahead. Pay attention and take it seriously. There are procedures we will follow in case of evacuation – we know what we’re doing. We will be telling people where to go and how to get there, depending on the situation.”
“It makes sense to be prepared,” said Spratlen. He recommends everyone in the county prepare themselves for evacuation.
“Get a Bug Out bag ready, have your vehicle ready. Prepare for a minimum of a few days, but even one, two or three months.”
When the Free Press asked why people should prepare for such a long away, Spratlen replied, “What if you’re evacuated and then your house burns to the ground?”
All county and fire officials contacted by the Free Press wanted people to know that even though right now it may seem as though little is being done about the chip pile on the Ironwood Mill site, they are well aware that citizens are concerned. They too have concerns and are actively working together to prepare for all contingencies, in every way possible.
Spratlen said, “I’m all for preparation. If you lose power what are you going to do? If you lose water?
“I’m all for the community – my bosses are the 26,000 people in Montezuma County. Call me any time.”
Nowlin echoed those sentiments.
“I will be there. I am available,” Nowlin said. He said the most important thing he can tell people in case of a fire and evacuation notice is, “Don’t panic.”