20 left jobless after fire destroys Libby mill

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 6, 2017 issue of The Western News. View clip online. Award: 2nd place breaking news story, Div. 2: Weekly newspapers, Montana Newspaper Association 2018 Better Newspaper Contest.

A blaze that kept firefighters busy for 18 hours beginning Sunday afternoon destroyed two buildings in Libby’s Kootenai Business Park and has left about 18-20 people out of work, officials say.

The buildings, part of the SK Fingerjoint complex, were unoccupied at the time of the fire, which was reported at 2:28 p.m. Sunday.

“It’s a damn shame,” Brent Teske, Lincoln County’s emergency management planner and Libby’s mayor, said as he watched the fire and considered the business’s significance to Libby’s economy. “It makes you sick.”

Monday morning the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office was investigating the fire’s cause.

Twenty-four firefighters responded to the huge blaze. One firefighter was treated at the scene for a minor burn to a hand, according to a Monday morning incident report prepared by Steven Lauer, Libby Volunteer Fire Department First Assistant and Fire Marshal.

In addition to firefighters, two Libby Volunteer Ambulance crews responded and some ambulance personnel helped firefighters lay or move hose. A number of units from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and Libby Police Department helped to secure the scene, and the Troy Volunteer Fire Department was called in to the Libby Fire Hall to remain on standby.

An insufficient supply of water at the site hindered firefighting efforts, officials said.

“The biggest detriment was not having water onsite,” Lauer said at the scene. In his Monday morning report, he also noted an “inoperable sprinkler system.”

Fire Chief Tom Wood said in a phone interview Monday that onsite hydrants provided too little water to power the engines. As a result, firefighters connected to a hydrant at Libby City Hall in addition to relying on three water tenders and the initial water contained within the three engines and one ladder truck that responded.

A few explosions that went off early in the blaze were “most likely” propane tanks, Lauer said.

The fire department reported the estimated loss as unknown Monday morning.

SK Fingerjoint leases the buildings from the Lincoln County Port Authority, which carries insurance on the structures, said Port Authority Board Member Kevin Peck.

Peck said when Dan Kneller approached the Port Authority about establishing the business there — it opened in 2014 — he said it would be one of only about five such facilities operating in the country.

The company cuts the ends of shorter boards like fingers and glues them together to make longer boards. It sits on the site of the former Stimson Lumber Mill, for which Kneller worked.

Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck on Monday said that the loss of jobs was a “devastating” blow to the local economy.

“It was such a success story,” he said, referring to owners — the Knellers — as “really good employers” with a “good business model,” “a lot of ingenuity” and “making a great product.”

“Between the (Lincoln County Port Authority) and the county and the community [we need to] put our heads together and see how we can help these guys recover,” Peck said. “They deserve it.”

Peck, reached by phone while driving to Missoula for a meeting of the Montana Forest Collaborative Network, said he would bring the situation to the attention of the Governor’s Office to “pull out all the stops here.”

Lincoln County Under Sheriff Brandon Huff told The Associated Press there was asbestos at the mill site, which is part of a sprawling federal Superfund cleanup project that includes Libby and surrounding areas.

A Monday morning post on the Lincoln County Health Department’s Facebook page notified nearby residents that “it is possible that debris from this fire was spread to surrounding properties” and that the department “is in the process of evaluating debris spread and any potential impacts to public health.”

The department instructed people who believe fire debris has landed on their property to call 406-283-2442.