The Shop and Sawmill Fire Story: Long Version
Now that I have the new shop/lumber store up and running in St. Charles, I am getting new customers that don’t know me yet. I tell them about milling local trees, building wine cellars, the story of how I ended up in St. Charles and the fire that prompted my move. For those of you that haven’t heard it, here is the “long version” of my fire story.
My shop, since I have been woodworking full-time, was always in a building behind our house in Hazelwood. While we lived in that house I always paid to rent other property for the sawmill. The shop and the sawmill were always in separate locations (I now recommend this). In August of 2010, we moved to St. Charles to a house that didn’t have room for a shop, so I decided to move my shop to the sawmill property. The building that I moved into wasn’t great, but I worked on it when I could, and I made it into a feasible shop.
I set up and used my sawmill in front of the shop. Between the two was my scrap pile. This setup worked great. Sawmill scrap and shop scrap would meet in the middle, easily chucked into a pile that I would move with the Bobcat when necessary.
Just before the fire, I was working on the “Augusta Project”, milling a lot of cedar. My Bobcat was out in Augusta so the scrap pile didn’t get moved. Cedar is really lightweight, so I was able to heave the scraps up higher than normal, and the pile grew. I impressed myself with how much wood I cut and how high the stack got. On both ends of the mill I had lumber stacked with sticks in between each row to allow air movement for drying and, as the firemen pointed out, for burning. They said it was nice how I had a little wood, then a little air, then a little wood, then a little more air, and then more and more wood.
The day of the fire was a Saturday that I had set aside to repair my sawmill. I met my ex-neighbor Alan at his house and he welded some new parts for me early in the morning, then I headed to the mill to install them. Everything went great and I had the new parts installed in no time. I had some extra time and thought to myself, “Boy, that went well, why not try to make the new parts look just a little better and do a little grinding and painting before I leave?” (I didn’t say anything to myself about burning down the place.)
I grabbed my grinder and started cleaning up the welds. They were looking good, but then something caught my attention. A couple of spots in the sawdust surrounding the sawmill were smoldering and not going out. It had been dry for a while and the wind was strong that day. Normally the sawdust and scrap pile would be wet from being on the ground and being sawn from wet wood, and they wouldn’t even think about catching on fire. The bonus, in this case, was that cedar is a very dry wood and burns like it has gas in it.
As soon as I saw smoldering sawdust I stopped grinding. After all, everything I was doing was cosmetic, I didn’t have to grind anything. First, I stepped on the smoldering spots to put them out, which may have been my most costly move. Then, I reconsidered and decided to shovel out the sawdust and spread it on the driveway, away from danger. I would have doused the whole place with water, but I don’t have running water at the sawmill, so that wasn’t possible. I did have a water jug with me, that I poured on the questionable areas, but it must have just angered the fire gods (should I capitalize that?). I continued shoveling the sawdust and looking for smoke. After finding no more signs of fire, I cleaned up and put away my tools, checked again for signs of fire, and started to leave.
I got up the road a bit and realized that I didn’t really have anywhere to be and that it made sense for me to go back and make sure the place wasn’t going to burn down. Understand, that this was a big move for me. I am normally very cavalier about such things, but I thought I had better check, just to make sure. I told myself that I was going to stay until I didn’t see any signs of fire for at least one hour, which I did.
After one hour of doing odd cleaning jobs and checking in on the potential fire area, I left. I don’t know exactly what time I got home, but I know it was before lunch at 12:30 p.m. The fire department was called by the neighbors that night at midnight, about twelve hours after I left. I wasn’t there when the fire started, but my best guess is that one of those first couple of sparks that I tried to snuff out with my shoes got buried, smoldered quietly all day, and then finally made it to the surface where it flamed up. Since it was late and the building was well hidden from the road, the fire had a chance to really get going before the fire trucks arrived. The firemen said they could see the flames above the trees about a mile away (literally). Needless to say, the building and everything inside was completely destroyed.
Leading up to the fire plenty of visitors to the sawmill joked about lighting that pile of scrap and how great it would burn. Looking back, I should have taken it as a serious warning.