STRONG — A wood pellet mill is expected to reopen in the next few days after a fire broke out early Thursday morning and damaged the plant, where 21 people work.

Travis Viles was working alongside another man inside the Geneva Wood Fuels plant when they noticed hot embers falling from the ceiling about 8 a.m., just before smoke began filling the room where the men were bagging wood pellets.

They alerted other workers and the 10 employees ran out of the building on Norton Hill Road to safety. Emergency responders started to arrive shortly after the evacuation and several firetrucks, including two ladder trucks from area fire departments, were called to the scene.

Viles watched as firefighters scrambled up ladders, cutting holes into the building’s façade and dousing flames shooting from the roof of the plant where he has worked for five months.

Other plant workers stood nearby and silently watched as smoke billowed from the plant, which is across the street from a store, gas station and the town’s community center.

Viles, 18, believes the plant has been vital in keeping people in town, calling it the first “real job” he was able to find. He shared his fear of finding another job.

“I was just getting started,” Viles said.

About 50 firefighters from area departments responded to the scene, with fire hose teams working on the roof, inside the plant and from ladder trucks to extinguish the fire by around 10:30 a.m., Strong Fire Chief Duayne Boyd said.

Geneva Wood Fuels, the company that owns the pellet mill, planned to start its cleanup and repair work last night at the plant, where damage was mostly contained to the roof. The plant’s equipment is expected to keep producing pellets for its hundreds of customers throughout New England, a company official said.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating to determine what caused the fire, which is not considered suspicious. Investigators believe the fire started in an empty storage section of the plant that was built after an explosion at the pellet mill in 2009, Boyd said.

The explosion in August 2009 closed the plant for almost a year and Geneva Wood Fuels took a variety of safety precautions after the incident, according to Justin Moran, director of sales and marketing for the company.

Moran would not discuss details of the explosion, saying the company’s chief executive officer Jonathan Kahn will be available Monday for further comment on the issue.

The company paid a $15,000 fine for workplace safety violation citations issued after the 2009 explosion, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

William Coffin, the federal labor agency’s area director in Maine, said Thursday that the violations were addressed and fixed after the company worked with the agency’s investigators. The federal agency initially sought $27,000 in fines from the company before agreeing to the lower penalty, he said.

Moran wrote in an email that the plant implemented the safety precautions recommended by the federal agency and an independent fire safety consultant. He added that the company believes its fire safety systems and policies are state-of-the-art compared to other facilities in the wood pellet industry.

The company plans to conduct an internal review of Thursday’s fire. The review seeks to determine a cause and find “ways to be even better prepared for incidents like this in the future,” Kahn wrote in a prepared statement.

David Robinson — 861-9287

[email protected]

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