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3 Gaston firefighters injured in Stimson blast

All three firefighters were treated at local area hospitals, cause of the blast still under investigation

Three Gaston firefighters were injured last 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. Damage was estimated at $100,000.

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.

And that outpouring continued Saturday at the annual pancake breakfast of the Gaston Volunteer Fire Department, a non-profit organization that contracts with the Gaston Rural Fire District to provide volunteer personnel and equipment.

Bilderback said the breakfast netted the organization about $3,000, possibly $3,500, which will go to buy a new heart monitor and defibrillator, along with other equipment.

The string of locals heading to the fire station Saturday for pancakes and coffee had the volunteers on their mind, Bilderback said.

'Almost all the locals who came through wanted to check on the well-being of the injured firefighters,' Bilderback said.