Flames Swiftly engulf planer mill

Published 6:40 am Wednesday, April 6, 2005

By By Lee Weyhrich
Swift lumber is at a partial standstill thanks to a Friday night fire that closed down the planer mill, a vital part of the company's lumber production.
"We got a call to Swift at 6:12 p.m. and we stayed out there until 9 p.m.," Fire Chief Gerry McGhee said.
Firefighters originally believed the fire was caused by one of the many lightning strikes but upon investigation McGhee believes the fire to be the result of a malfunction.
"It started from an engine that overheated," McGhee said. "After we got over there and got to investigating that's what we think. The state investigator looked into it and it came to an engine overheating."
Poarch Volunteer Fire Department, Walnut Hill Volunteer Fire Department and Nokomis Fire Department were also called to the blaze. The fire department called in backup because at the time they were still investigating three other calls.
"At the time we had lightning hit Elite Sporting Goods and Joey's ambulance and we were still at the one (fire call) on Brown St. where we had the [fatality].
In all 15 firemen responded to the Swift fire while other units were spread throughout Atmore on unrelated calls.
"With the weather I just wanted to make sure I had enough help," McGhee said. "I'd rather call in more mutual aide standby until we got it all under control than not have enough. After we got everything under control we turned Walnut Hill and Flomaton loose and they returned to their stations."
McGhee said he was unsure just how much damage the fire had caused.
"I don't know how much damage it has done because I have not been over there since then," McGhee said. "I don't know if it will shut them down or whatever, They said they'd start working on it Friday night and they probably worked all day Saturday and Sunday."
According to David Swift, vice president of Swift Lumber the planer mill is still not operational and will require weeks of repairs and replacements to return to full operating capacity.
"The fire was at our planer mill plant and the fire was pretty much contained to the planer machine itself," Swift said. "It will be down for a few days. We'll do a partial restoration and get it at a limited capacity but it will not be at full capacity for several weeks. It will definitely impact our production. We're installing another floor machine as a stop-gap until we can get a proper replacement in place."
Plans are already being made to lessen the blow to production as much as possible.
"Robin Swift, president of Swift Lumber, is actively getting proposals on coming in and getting replacement equipment and contractors in to do the work," Swift said. "It's too soon to tell what the dollar damage is at this time."
If it had not been for the quick response of the already thin-stretched fire departments the damage could have been catastrophic for the plant.
"I would like to say that thanks to the response from the fire departments the fire was contained and it mitigated any extensive damage," Swift said.
Swift would also like to thank the person who made the call to the fire department.
"Ronnie Johnson a neighbor at the City Industrial Park was going by and actually spotted the fire and notified the authorities so we are truly indebted to him."
Officials at Swift are still having talks with insurance representatives. No other information has been released at this time.

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