WATERVILLE — Firefighters from Waterville, Fairfield and Winslow were called again to the Huhtamaki plant on College Avenue to deal with hot spots on the roof that reportedly rekindled from Tuesday night’s fire.

Firefighting crews were dispatched about 10:45 a.m. to the paper products plant on the Waterville-Fairfield line, where employees reportedly were evacuated to a safe part of the building. Responders set up a command post inside the building at 242 College Ave. A Waterville fire ladder truck was stationed by the front entrance and several firefighters were on the roof.

“We responded back up here for a small fire that was smoldering in the roof that was residual from last night,” Waterville fire Chief Shawn Esler said. “We quickly went in (and) extinguished the fire.”

The scene was cleared by about 11:35 a.m.

Winslow fire Chief Ronnie Rodriguez said the makeup of the old mill’s roof was largely responsible for the flare-up.

“In the fire service, building construction plays a huge part in how we attack the fire,” he said. “A house fire — we attack it totally different than an industrial complex. So what we’re dealing with here is residual effects within the roof membrane, and the roof membrane has depth — a bunch of different materials that can smolder — and it just takes time.”

He also explained some particular challenges responders faced with the Huhtamaki roof on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Firefighters from Waterville, Fairfield and Winslow respond on Wednesday after fire rekindled on the roof of the Huhtamaki mill in Waterville and Fairfield from a fire that started Tuesday evening.

“You’ve got a metal deck roof with all kinds of layers on it, and it’s abutted against a fire wall, and you can only get so close to the fire wall before you can extinguish anything,” Rodriguez said.

Tuesday night firefighters from about 15 communities worked late into the night at Huhtamaki, where a large fire was burning in the paper machines below the roof, according to Esler.

When firefighters arrived at the fire scene Tuesday after the fire was reported at 5:26 p.m., flames were showing from the roof of the long two-story building, which was evacuated. Lt. Scott Holst, of the Waterville Fire Department, who responded to the fire call Wednesday, said that the previous team did not leave Huhtamaki until 2:30 a.m. that day.

Huhtamaki is a long brick building. The company makes a variety of products, including paper drinking cups, plates and food packaging containers.

Capt. Jim Lane, of the Fairfield-Benton Fire Department, said the Tuesday fire resulted from a B15 dryer, which is used to heat and harden paper plates after they are stamped.

“Those dryers are made with fire walls so that if the machine catches fire, it’s made to go through the roof and not into the mill to catch the mill on fire,” he said. “The first vent out is up, which causes the heat to rise and let us do what we need to do.”

Lane was not at the scene Tuesday night, but he responded to the Wednesday morning rekindling.

At the scene Tuesday night, firefighters worked inside the building and from the roof. Two ladder trucks from the Fairfield-Benton and Waterville fire departments were parked on either side of the building’s main entrance, and firefighters climbed up and down the ladders, to and from the roof.

Esler said the sprinkler system inside Huhtamaki was working and the company has an excellent evacuation plan and is responsive to fires.

“Huhtamaki has a great safety plan in place,” he said.

Calls to Huhtamaki’s Waterville operator and national spokesman were unreturned Wednesday. Two Waterville shift supervisors declined to comment on the company’s safety protocols and the number of employees evacuated Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

This is the third fire call involving Huhtamaki since December. On Dec. 5, 2018, firefighters extinguished smoke and flames coming from a machine. Esler said such incidents are “not uncommon, but not frequent either.”

“The processes which they use to manufacture paper create heat and ignition sources for fires,” Esler said. “If they didn’t have such a good safety program here at the facility, we’d see a lot more fires. Huhtamaki does a pretty good job with their fire prevention and suppression program. They call the Fire Department fairly early.”

Rodriguez re-emphasized that the building itself plays a role in the frequency of fires at the facility, adding that incidents are also “not uncommon based on the building materials and the building construction that we’re faced with.”

Firefighters from Waterville, Fairfield and Winslow found themselves back on the roof of the Huhtamaki mill in Waterville and Fairfield after fire rekindled on Wednesday from a fire that started Tuesday evening.

Lane, who has been with the Fairfield-Benton Fire Department for over 40 years, said Huhtamaki’s machines are well-built to minimize potential damage from fires.

“Those systems are relatively good,” he said. “In all my years, that mill’s never burned.”

Lane recalled that in the 1980s and 1990s, dryer fires were so frequent at the facility that he described the period as “an ongoing fire.” Since then, Lane said, he has observed a “decrease in fires in the building,” and that nothing as far as he is concerned would suggest that trend is changing.

“The improvements over the years have been astronomical, and they have a great record down there,” he said. “The safety records are very strong.”

Data from the Waterville Fire Department show a decrease in the number of fire and rescue calls the department has received involving the Huhtamaki facility on College Avenue since 2014. In 2012, there was a surge of 15 fire calls made after a total of six the year before. In 2013, 18 fire calls involving the facility were reported, and 16 were reported in 2014. From there, the number of fire calls has tapered from nine in 2015 to seven in 2016 and three in both 2017 and 2018. It is unclear what caused the increase in fire calls from 2012 to 2014, though Waterville Capt. Eion Pelletier noted that not all of the fire calls involved active fires; some were alarms. In January 2014, an electrical cable that chafed and ignited some plywood caused a fire at the facility; and in October 2014, a machine fire was the cause of another fire call.

On Tuesday night, Esler noted that a firefighter was taken to the hospital for an unknown injury. Lane clarified on Wednesday that the person’s injury was a minor one involving a twisted muscle.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]


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