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Firefighters attack hot spots at Western Excelsior

The Western Excelsior fire continued to smolder on Wednesday as the town considered the potential loss of its biggest business and the investigation into the blaze pointed to a faulty ventilation fan.

Evidence indicates that a fan’s motor was the fire’s point of origin, Mancos Fire Chief Tony Aspromonte said on Wednesday.

It was uncertain whether the Mancos facility, which contributes millions of dollars to the local economy, would be lost.

Aspromonte said crews contained the fire by about 2 a.m. Tuesday. About 10 a.m. Wednesday, he said crews hadn’t fully turned the scene over to plant personnel, and planned to return to the scene to monitor the situation.

“It’s been knocked down to where it’s not a risk to others,” said Montezuma County Emergency Manager Paul Hollar.

Fire crews and plant personnel have been monitoring the smoldering fire to make sure that nothing reignited, and Hollar warned that there were still some fuels in the building.

He did not offer an estimate on the cost of the damage, and said insurance investigators would visit the site in the coming days. A company watchman was assigned to keep an eye on the situation.

“We’re going to knock out the big hot spots, but it will probably smolder for four to five days,” Aspromonte said on Tuesday.

The production room, warehouse and offices at the mill sustained the heaviest damage. There was no damage to the massive wood piles on the plant site or the trailer court across the street.

The fire started just before 1 p.m. Monday at the plant, 901 W. Grand Ave. Western Excelsior workers were evacuated safely, fire officials at the scene said, and no injuries were reported.

Mancos fire crews first attacked the fire inside the building, but the wind picked up and forced them into a defensive mode, according to Aspromonte. They retreated to fight it from the outside.

“It was more fire than we could handle,” he said.

About 10 fire departments and 50-60 firefighters responded to the scene, Aspromonte said.

The Mancos fire chief said that by about 5:45 p.m., the fire was contained to the inside of the building, and that it hadn’t reached the massive piles of aspen logs. The fire started somewhere in the middle of the building, he said.

By 6 p.m., the wind was dying down, and the temperature was dropping, allowing fire crews to enter the building to attack the fire from the inside, according to Hollar.

At that time, the crews’ top priority was keeping the fire from spreading to the trailer court across Grand Avenue, where some employees live.

The fire brought waves of firefighters to the scene. The Cortez fire department sent an engine and a ladder truck. The Dolores fire department sent an engine. Crews and trucks also came from Pleasant View, Towaoc, Lewis-Arriola, Fort Lewis Mesa, Rico, Los Pinos and San Juan County, New Mexico. The Farmington fire department also sent a crew, according to Cortez Fire Chief Jeff Vandevoorde.

Eight homes were evacuated from the trailer park across West Grand Avenue, in part because responders didn’t know whether the smoke contained toxic matter.

Hollar applauded the efforts of the responders.

“Everyone came together like they were supposed to,” he said.

Residents and the town also responded quickly to the growing crisis.

The town paid for pizza for fire crews, and the American Red Cross provided hotel vouchers that provided shelter for five displaced families, Mancos Town Clerk Heather Alvarez said.

The Red Cross provided respirators and drinking water as well as cleaning kits for residents whose homes were affected by smoke. They were available at Mancos Town Hall, 117 N. Main St.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars post at 136 W. Grand Ave. provided temporary shelter for evacuees. The Montezuma County Health Department announced that it was sending respirators and advised residents to close their windows and shut off their air conditioners.

Members of the Colorado State Patrol, the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies directed traffic at the fire scene. Leslie Dent, a retired firefighter from California who was in town to visit family, put on a green vest to help block off West Grand Avenue.

“I seen a need here, and I came over to help,” he said.

Gino Chavez, a Western Excelsior employee, said he didn’t learn about the fire until he was on his way to work about 4:30 p.m., when he saw smoke.

“I freaked out,” he said.

Chavez said he had never heard of problems with fire at the plant before, so the disaster came as a shock.

Western Excelsior processes harvested timber to create erosion-control products such as shaved aspen, also known as excelsior. It also makes erosion-control blankets and mats, and has been in business since 1977. The company has more than 100 workers and is the town’s largest private employer.

The company has been planning to build a 2,150-square-foot addition that would enclose the facility’s pellet mill in the company’s ongoing effort to reduce the amount of mill dust that drifts to surrounding areas. The company recently was awarded a $38,000 workforce development grant to provide training for 44 employees.

Western Excelsior also has facilities in Macon, Georgia, and the corporate offices are in Evansville, Indiana.

Several area businesses have offered to help the company with arrangements such as unemployment.

At the Montezuma Community Economic Development Association meeting on Tuesday, several business partners expressed a desire to help workers find temporary jobs if needed.

But Laura Lewis Marchino, of the Region 9 economic development district, said it was too soon to tell whether the jobs at Western Excelsior had been lost.

Marchino said she was getting updates from the Montezuma County Workforce Center and would inform the rest of the association when she knew more.

Mancos Mayor Pro Tem Fred Brooks suggested people contact Alvarez to find out how to help.

“The impact is going to be incredible for our little town,” Brooks said.

Journal reporters Jacob Klopfenstein, Stephanie Alderton and Jim Mimiaga contributed to this article.

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