New tactics on stubborn fire

For weeks, a blaze in huge piles of wood chips in Moncure has tested firefighters.

Staff WriterJuly 27, 2011 

— Firefighters plan to begin a major assault today on a fire that has burned for weeks in 50- to 70-foot-high piles of wood chips at a factory in Moncure.

Tom Bender, fire marshal for Chatham County, said the fire started in the chip piles outside the Uniboard USA plant at the end of June. He said it was likely ignited by lightning or spontaneous combustion from the decomposition of organic material.

Uniboard, owner of the Pergo flooring plant in Garner, uses wood chips to manufacture particleboard and to run boilers that produce heat for drying the materials that go into the board.

Since the fire started, Bender said, the company has used its equipment to try to spread out the chip pile and has sprayed water to contain the fire and keep it from spreading toward the plant or beyond the property. Bender said he and Moncure Volunteer Fire Department Chief Todd Harrington have monitored the fire daily.

Bender said firefighters and county and plant officials decided not to apply large amounts of water to the fire so far because the region is in a drought and they don't want to deplete water resources, and because ash and debris would run off into a nearby creek and then into the Haw River just before it empties into the Cape Fear.

The fire probably covers an acre, Bender said. He said the county has fielded a number of complaints about smoke since the fire started.

"The smoke is offensive and objectionable, and we understand that," he said.

Harrington said he had been working to gather resources to tackle the fire all at once, and that this morning crews from several local fire departments would be at the plant, on Corinth Road a few miles off U.S. 1. Among the equipment they would bring, he said, are at least 14 tankers and a truck that can raise a platform about 90 feet in the air, from which firefighters could look down on the fire and find hot spots. That way, he said, they can target their efforts and limit the use of water.

"Hopefully, we'll have it out in a couple of days," he said.

Most of the time, Harrington said, only smoke, not flames, have been visible from the fire, and he said it may be burning half- to three-fourths of the way down into the piles.

"This thing is massive," he said. "We don't exactly know how much fire is in there until we get the heavy equipment in to dig it out."

In the future, Harrington said, he hopes plant officials won't let the chip piles get so tall, to limit the risk of fire.

Uniboard plant manager Terry Snell did not return phone calls.

Uniboard, a leading manufacturer of engineered wood products, opened the Moncure plant in late 2009 or early 2010. It makes high- and medium-density fiberboard for laminated flooring, kitchen cabinets, furniture, and home building and renovation. Uniboard is a subsidiary of Pfleiderer AG of Germany.

martha.quillin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8989

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