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Sawmill fire aftermath: Asbestos confirmed

By TRISTAN SCOTT of the Missoulian

Rudy Salcedo, left, and Luciano Rosas of Geomatrix Consultants clean up debris spread by the structure fire at the old Idaho Timber Products mill at a house on California Street on Wednesday. Health officials say that some of the debris spread by the fire contains asbestos.

When flames leveled an abandoned building at the old lumber mill site near Play Ball Park on Tuesday morning, a flurry of ash and debris fell over neighborhoods a half-mile to the west, as far as Reserve Street.

On Wednesday, tests on the ash came back positive for chrysotile asbestos.

"This confirms that at least some asbestos has left the site of the fire," said Jan Scher, air quality specialist at the Missoula City-County Health Department. "It doesn't mean that all the ash contains asbestos, but some of it does."

Health officials collected four ash samples Tuesday, scouring an area between the Idaho Timber Products mill site and Russell Street. Three of those samples contained 2 percent asbestos fibers, Scher said.

On Wednesday, about 35 additional ash samples were collected between Russell, Reserve and Third streets, as well as from along the Clark Fork River. Officials expect to know the results of those tests sometime Thursday.

Now, fire investigators are working closely with asbestos abatement contractors to keep the ash undisturbed.

To prevent more ash from becoming airborne, abatement crews worked throughout the day Wednesday to clean up backyards, driveways, parking lots and trees in neighborhoods west of the old mill.

Meanwhile, firefighters doused the 40,000-square-foot fire site with water to keep the ash damp and earthbound, as crews rummaged through the building's rubble searching for possible human remains and extinguishing hot spots.

Because cleanup crews are using heavy earthmoving equipment to get beneath the piles of debris and roofing, the risk of stirring up dry ash is high.

The lead fire investigator in the case, Missoula Rural Fire Capt. Tom Zeigler, said because the building hasn't been connected to gas or electricity for years, the blaze was definitely human-caused.

"We've ruled out all utility causes, electric and gas, and this wasn't an act of God," Zeigler said. "It was either incendiary or accidental, but it was human caused."

Zeigler said 9-1-1 reports indicate that about 30 transients may have been living in the abandoned building. One witness said someone was on the roof when the fire started.

Zeigler asked anyone who was on the building's roof at the time of the fire to contact the fire department at 549-6172.

So far, there haven't been any reports of missing persons, and Zeigler said investigators have been checking with the Poverello Center and other shelters in the area.

"We want to close that lead up," he said. "We're already going through this stuff carefully in case we find someone. We'll be on our hands and knees for the next couple of days."

A point-of-origin investigation has revealed the fire started somewhere in the building's southeast corner.

Numbered tags attached to the charred, toppled support beams indicate the sequence in which they collapsed.

"It's like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle," Zeigler said.

Zeigler believes the fire started on the second floor.

Fire rings, mattresses and clothing are scattered through other abandoned buildings on the site, evincing a transient campground.

Besides searching for bodies, work crews also are sorting out scrap materials that can be salvaged, like wood, tin and asbestos.

At the same time, men in white suits are cleaning up ash and debris from around the adjacent neighborhoods.

Chris Cerquone, senior scientist with Geomatrix Consultants, said a 10-person crew is working to remove hazardous material from backyards.

On Friday, an additional crew will start helping with the cleanup. By then, the crew will have access to lawnmower sweepers and road sweepers, allowing them to work faster, Cerquone said.

"With asbestos, it's either there or it's not there," he said. "If it's there, it is considered an asbestos hazard."

Missoula police officers were first on the scene to the fire early Tuesday, responding just after 1 a.m.

City and rural fire departments fought the fire, which crossed a field of grass and brush, coming within several feet of homes in the adjacent neighborhood.

The initial attack was primarily defensive.

Police officers and firefighters evacuated about 15 homes and snuffed out the ground fire moments before flames reached several backyards and structures.

Missoula Rural Fire engines arrived shortly after to help battle the inferno, which sent flames more than 100 feet in the air.

Resources also arrived from East Missoula, Lolo, Bonner and Clinton. Meanwhile, Frenchtown and Florence fire departments assisted with local emergency calls.

Property owners with ash in their yards or on their roofs should call the Asbestos Cleanup Request Hotline at 258-3500. Callers need to leave their name, a callback number and the address of the property they want cleaned up.

Idaho Timber, the owner of the old mill site, has made arrangements with an asbestos abatement contractor to clean up the ash from the fire.

The contractor will contact callers who leave a message on the hot line within four business hours.

Additional information about asbestos and cleanup is available at

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at

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