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Officials weary of Dolores mill’s fire prevention plan

The Ironwood mill in Dolores.
Monthslong grapple continues as Montezuma County Commissioners reject fire mitigation plan; county attorney raises possibility of civil litigation

Commissioners and other officials rejected the fire mitigation plan proposed by the Ironwood Mill in Dolores at the Montezuma County Board of County Commissioners meeting Tuesday, citing mounting concerns that an expansive wood chip pile could leave surrounding properties engulfed in flames.

For several months now, the Dolores mill at 27736 County Road T has been the recipient of community exasperation and unease. Its plans for expansion have been met with vehement opposition by neighboring residents with various concerns, among them noise, light, safety and declining property values.

Neighbors first aired their grievances at an Oct. 14 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, where IronWood’s plans to install steaming vats and on-site housing, as well as to officially shift to 24/7 operation operating hours, were discussed.

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On Nov. 16, county commissioners postponed discussion about on-site housing for mill employees, instead requiring the mill to produce a fire mitigation plan before further development.

Dissatisfied with the mill’s plan, commissioners ultimately decided Tuesday to hold a public hearing for the mill’s proposed high-impact permit, which could be in jeopardy, on Jan. 25.

Commissioners made the decision after retiring to an executive discussion with County Attorney Ian MacLaren, who mentioned the possibility of civil litigation against the mill.

Wade Bentley, plant manager at IronWood, fielded criticism and questions from concerned officials at the meeting Tuesday morning.

He said he wasn’t aware action had to be taken with the piles until September or October, although Planning and Zoning Director Don Haley said the mill was first notified in a March meeting.

Bentley said that meeting took place with an owner no longer with the company. He also said expectations for the mitigation plan had heightened since November, but Commissioner Jim Candelaria said that the hazard the mill poses warrants plan changes as the county sees fit.

Bentley said the mill had removed logs and wood chips from its property but was unable to specify how much.

Candelaria expressed concern that the mill hadn’t met deadlines for mitigation plans and efforts.

The mill hasn’t added to the wood chip pile since Oct. 7, according to the mitigation plan it presented to the county. And, it said, it wouldn’t do so when production recommences — presumably following winter and its eventual completion of county requirements.

“The best thing that I can say is it’s really not a plan ... nothing that I would personally approve,” said Montezuma County Emergency Manager Jim Spratlen at the meeting.

The mill has been in correspondence with the county. Its fire mitigation plan was reviewed by county officials, edited and sent back, Spratlen said. The revised plan didn’t reflect county suggestions, specific dates or a site plan, he said.

Dolores Fire Chief Mike Zion said the county isn’t equipped to handle the size of fire that officials fear could spring from the wooden debris.

“I think if we have a fire out there, we’re going to spend more time trying to save houses than we are the mill,” he said.

He was unsettled by the memory of the Aspen Wall Wood mill fire, and how a new fire could pose striking similarities.

The memory of that fire, and that of the Western Excelsior Corp. mill in Mancos still haunt the county.

Sparks would likely flurry from one wood chip pile to another rapidly, Zion said.

“We’re not going to be able to stop it,” he said.

Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin also took to the lectern at Tuesday’s county commissioner meeting to express concern over the risk of fire, and potential losses of life and property.

This would likely spur a criminal investigation, he said.

“I feel accountable to these people to do the very best we can to prevent a tragedy from happening,” he said.

Nowlin is also nervous about how the heavy winds typical of Montezuma County in the spring could instigate a turbulent fire.

“If this starts, it’ll get out of control,” he said.

Piles are too close together, he said. Ideally, they would be 30 feet apart, previous discussions have claimed.

MacLaren joined the discussion, adding that the mill faces legal predicaments as well.

Referring to the mill’s risk to the community as a “public nuisance,” he said immediate action needed to be taken, with specific dates outlined.