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Concussive blast at Stimson Mill injures three Gaston firefighters

All three firefighters were treated at local area hospitals, cause of the blast still under investigation
by: Courtesy Crews from the Gaston Rural Fire District prepare to enter the Stimson Lumber Mill near Hagg Lake to extinguish a fire Aug. 16, 2011.

Three Gaston firefighters were injured Tuesday night when a sawdust silo exploded at the Stimson Lumber Co. mill located near Henry Hagg Lake, south of Forest Grove.

All three firefighters were released from area hospitals following emergency room treatment for concussive injuries suffered in the explosion, which happened around 9:30 p.m., two and a half hours after firefighters first arrived at the scene to respond to a smoldering fire inside a silo used to store bark dust.

Investigators from the Oregon Fire Marshall's office and Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division were at the scene of the explosion Wednesday morning investigating the exact cause of the fire and blast.

The fire, and the blast, were both very unusual. Ken Bilderback, volunteer public information officer for the Gaston Rural Fire District, said no firefighters on scene reported shrapnel injuries or burns. The explosion was loud, and the concussive force of it buckled and peeled away the sheet metal housing of the saw dust collection silo, but didn't involve any flames.

'I don't want anyone to think it was like a fireball or anything like that,' Bilderback said. 'It blew apart part of the structure of the sawdust recovery bin near where our firefighters were.'

The exact cause of the blowout is still under investigation, as is the amount of damage to the Stimson facilities.

Smoldering hot spots

The first call came in to dispatch around 7 p.m. Tuesday night as a commercial fire at the Stimson Lumber mill. When firefighters from Forest Grove and Gaston arrived on the scene, they discovered smoldering dust and hot spots inside the large saw dust silo.

Firefighters began using water and other firefighting techniques to cool the hot spots and prevent the sparks and heat inside from turning into a fully engulfed fire.

During that firefighting effort, about 90 minutes after firefighters arrived on scene, a loud boom, accompanied by a shockwave buckled the steel housing of the silo near where a number of Gaston firefighters were working.

At that point, Gaston Fire Chief Roger Mesenbrink called in a 'May Day' on the dispatch radio, triggering response from fire agencies throughout Washington and Yamhill counties.

'It's the scariest word you can hear on a fire call,' said Bilderback.

A quick effort to locate Stimson employees and firefighters was followed by an injury assessment. A number of firefighters were assessed for injuries, but only three were transported to hospitals for medical care.

Two were taken by ambulance to Tuality Community Hospital in Hillsboro, another was taken to the emergency room of OHSU in Portland.

All three were treated for several hours, but none were admitted to a bed for overnight care. All three injured firefighters are now home and recovering. Gaston Rural Fire District will not release their names.

Community outpouring

Bilderback said the outpouring of support and concern from residents in Forest Grove, Gaston and Yamhill has been staggering.

'We're just very thankful for the community in Gaston and Yamhill and in Forest Grove for all the concern the community is showing for these injured firefighters,' Bilderback said.

Bilderback said the fire department doesn't need assistance taking care of the injured firefighters or handling their medical care, but the timing of the event is a useful reminder of the role the firefighters play in the small rural community.

On Saturday, Aug. 20, the Gaston volunteer fire department will swing open their station doors at 7 a.m. for pancakes, eggs, ham and coffee, to raise money for the agency.

Bilderback said the event is the major fundraiser for the volunteer firefighters, who provide the bulk of the fire protection services in the Gaston fire district.

The event is an opportunity for Gaston residents and those nearby to meet their firefighters in the station they work out of, located at 102 East Main St., in the heart of the small city of Gaston.

'We'd love to have people come out anyway,' Bilderback said. 'But just to extend that invitation again to come and join us Saturday morning.'