The Saratoga Sun -

Cleaning, fixing, repairing

Saratoga Forest Management uses down time after fire to make mill safer, cleaner


Joshua Wood

Saratoga Forest Management owner Gary Ervin looks over the log deck.

Nearly two months have passed since a fire at the Saratoga Forest Management (SFM) sawmill consumed 6 million board feet of timber and threatened the surrounding community. With the fire out, and production resuming at the mill, some have raised the question as to what SFM is doing in the wake of the fire to prevent a similar event. The answer starts at the top, with owner Gary Ervin.

As was reported previously in the Saratoga Sun, Ervin has plans to revamp the boiler system at SFM. With the help of Wellons Inc., a boiler production company out of Washington State, Ervin hopes to have a continuous sprayer system by the end of the summer that will extinguish hot ash as it leaves the boiler.

Ervin took the time while the plant was down to make some updates to equipment. The planer has been refurbished, a new chipper has been installed and improvements have been made to the log deck. While production may have resumed, it is not nearly at the level it was before the fire. The timber he has received from sources such as the Bureau of Land Management, the State of Wyoming and private landowners such as Silver Spur and Double 8 ranches, has been able to keep the mill going.

With production comes byproduct and, even with the limited amount of timber that SFM is receiving, that byproduct is building up again. Piles of bark, also known as hog, and wood chips have once again formed behind the mill. Ervin insists, however, that he is getting rid of it as fast he can.

"Right now, we're not producing the chips we need to go to Gypsum (Colo.) or for playground chips," said Ervin.

When Ervin bought the mill, the resources that were available to Louisiana Pacific (LP) were not available to him and so Ervin had to get creative. This included selling wood chips to the power plant in Gypsum and for use in playgrounds as well as selling the sawdust to pellet factories. Even if the railroad was still in place at the mill, it wouldn't be an option.

"They all have to be trucked out," Ervin said.

That means working on the timelines of other people. Ervin is still waiting for a company to arrive to screen and chip the remaining timber from the fire in April that would then be sent to Gypsum. As for the hog pile, Ervin said the older pile will begin being removed within the week.

Along with working to keep the byproduct down, SFM also is working to focus on improving the culture of safety and assembling a group of first responders in case of another fire.

"We've had a couple of meeting since then and we're going to designate a chain of command and only so many first responders. We had too many people out there, so it was kind of mass confusion until we sent them home and got things under control," said Tom Brinkerhoff.

Brinkerhoff was the first employee hired by Ervins and has been at the sawmill ever since. According to him, while the culture of safety may not have been the best at the beginning, it has improved. Visits from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have hastened those improvements and the management of SFM continues to move forward.

According to Brinkerhoff, employees who don't properly "Lock Out, Tag Out" (LOTO) equipment have either been suspended or fired. The same goes for assigned firewatches in the case of welding or other work that produces sparks and could start a fire.

"First couple of years they were really slow, but now they're really getting serious about it," said Brinkerhoff.

Another longtime employee, Jed Dunkerson, has also seen improvement. Not only since the fire, but also in the four years he has worked at SFM as the head filer.

"I've worked in worst places. I've been doing it for 40 years, I understand what to do and what not to do. Overall, I don't think it's too bad," said Dunkerson.

Recently, Marcos Zaragoza, a foreman at SFM, aided the Saratoga Volunteer Fire Department (SVFD) in a walkthrough of the plant.

"We toured the whole mill," said Zaragoza, "showed them areas that were high risk compared to other areas. I showed them our fire systems and our hydrants. I showed them the maps that we had built so they'd know what entrance to come in, what hydrants are town hydrants, what hydrants are plant hydrants. I just tried to make sure we're ready if something else were to happen."

Joshua Wood

Timber from the Bureau of Land Management is cut down to size on the log deck before being processed.

Many of the employees at SFM are Valley residents who not only work here, but live here as well and are all too aware that the mill has been under scrutiny since the fire. They encourage people to speak with Ervin about any concerns they have about what the mill is doing to make things safer for employees and for the community.

"If they're really interested," said Brinkerhoff, "we give tours through here all the time. We've had a lot of people come through here."

"If I have a problem, I go right to the source. I encourage other people to do the same," added Dunkerson.

Ervin echoes what his employees have said, asking that people come talk to him face-to-face about any issues they might have. He added some residents of the Saratoga Inn Overlook have contacted him to inform him that they were aware of the mills proximity when they moved there and have no complaint.

"I'll always try and work with people on whatever is reasonable," said Ervin. "I'm not here to cause anybody any grief."


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