JEFFERSON — A new steel-frame sawmill is almost complete at N.C. Hunt Lumber, signaling the return of more than a dozen jobs to Jefferson after a fire forced layoffs.

On Tuesday, workers were welding parts of the sawmill and placing steel panels on the roof. The steel-frame doesn’t have any walls yet, but N.C. Hunt President Rob Hunt — son of owner Norman Clark Hunt — said portions of the mill should be turned on in a matter of weeks to be calibrated. He said the whole sawmill should be running at full power in December.

The former wooden sawmill burned down in March and, in April, Department of Public Safety spokesperson Steve McCausland said the fire was accidental. The fire was caused by sparks from a torch used while making repairs to machinery. No one was injured in the blaze.

Rob Hunt said the company had to lay off 17 people after the fire, but kept 15 on to help build the mill. Some of the workers building the mill will operate it once construction is finished, he said, and the rest of the laid-off workers will return later.

“The goal is to bring them all back by this winter once we get the machines up and running,” Rob Hunt said. “Hopefully, we can grow. We’re super excited about that.”

He said employees were nervous the day after the fire, but were quick to move onto the rebuild.

“Everyone was pretty nervous that day,” Hunt said. “Within four weeks, we got the guts of the plan … and they started building it.”

“We jumped on it quick,” he added. “Take one step, if you thought about all 500 you’d get discouraged.”

This photo, taken Tuesday, shows the replacement sawmill being built at N.C. Hunt Lumber in Jefferson. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Crews are reusing some parts of the old mill — like sections of foundations and components from old machinery — and combining them with new, state-of-the-art components to construct the facility. Rob Hunt compared the sawmill’s controls to those used to play video games, adding they are more intuitive for employees. He said if he contracted the job, it would cost about $3 million.

“We’ve used some assets we had here,” he said, adding that the company is using its own construction crew. “We’re doing it for quite a chunk less (than $3 million).”

Hunt said the new mill will help the company add more types of high-end wood to its inventory, which he said is shipped as far away as New York City and North Carolina. He said the sawmill was also engineered to be safer and more efficient.

The company used stored sawmill product to sustain some clients while the facility was rebuilt, but Dave Smith, N.C. Hunt Lumber’s retail general manager, said Tuesday some product had to be purchased from competitors to keep up with demand.

That was tough on the company’s bottom line, Hunt said, because it increases already-high transportation costs for products that would otherwise be produced in N.C. Hunt’s own lumber yard.

“It makes a huge difference for us … and we’re able to be very competitive,” he said.

Despite having to contact competitors for product, Smith and Hunt said other lumber yards have offered them reasonable prices.

“The other mills have been good to us,” Smith said. “The Maine lumber community came together (to help N.C. Hunt).”

“We’ve just had a tremendous amount of support, whether it be vendors, customers, loggers (or) employees,” Hunt added. “Without all the support we’ve had from the community, state and town, we wouldn’t have come close to what we’re doing.”

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