Heavy fines likely after mill fire in Valley

Published 8:32 pm Friday, December 15, 2017

By Steven Thomas
Valley Times-News

VALLEY — Someone may have to pay a hefty fine for the Wednesday fire that destroyed most of what was left of Fairfax Mill. According to state law, anyone attempting to do any burning on an industrial site must have a permit in advance from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM).

ADEM representatives have told county officials that was not done and even if it had been the request would likely have been denied due to the windy conditions on Wednesday. East Alabama Fire Chief Neal Marberry told The Valley Times-News on Thursday that the mill fire started sometime Wednesday after spreading from a debris pile on the south side of the mill site.

“It spread into the building from the pile,” he said.

Most of Fairfax Mill was built in the period between 1913 and 1915 and went into production in July 1916. Within its first few years of operation, the mill gave the surrounding community the nickname “Towel City USA” for the Martex towels that were produced there.

It was a profitable textile mill for many years before suffering the same fate as the vast majority of U.S. textile plants in the first decade of the twentieth century.

It shut down in the early 2000s, its production was shifted to nearby WestPoint Stevens plants, but by 2008, all local production was off-shored to cheap labor markets.

Fairfax Mill had been in the process of demolition in recent years.

There’s still a lot of rubble on the site, and as the Wednesday incident revealed, a lot of combustible material. The original mill building had been razed to ground level. Most of what was left were some concrete floors supported by huge wooden pilings.

As Wednesday’s fire spread into the mill building. those huge heart pine pilings caught fire.

This caused the concrete floor to collapse in sections, causing loud booms that could be heard throughout the Fairfax community.

By early afternoon on Wednesday, the fire was mostly a smoldering event that produced an enormous white cloud of smoke that could be seen from a great distance away. Fanned by the wind, it got hotter as the afternoon ensued and flames could be seen in isolated locations inside the remaining structure.

Chambers County Commissioner Debbie Wood and Tony Segrest, general manager of the East Alabama Water, Sewer and Fire Protection Authority, conferred on the matter, and it was decided to send in East Alabama firefighters to keep a growing fire from getting out of control.

There are some legal issues involved in responding to fires located on the mill sites.

They are in industrial parks, and it’s up to officials from the county, not the city, in deciding what to do. With Wood and Segrest in agreement that something needed to be done, East Alabama firefighters responded to the incident. They were in for a long, grueling night.

“It spread quickly on us,” Marberry said. “We made some good progress on it for a time, but then it would pick back up.” A major factor in this were the sporadic gusts of wind that whipped over the mill site. At times, the fire was extremely hot with flames leaping a good 15 to 20 feet in the air. The difficult period came from 7 p.m. until around ten o’clock.

“It was a fully involved structure fire with support posts burning away and decks collapsing,” Marberry said. “We kept our guys a safe distance away and kept fighting it.”

Thanks to the hard, determined work of the East Alabama firefighters, the hot fire was reduced to hissing steam. “It’s going to continue smoldering for some time,” Marberry said. “It will be a slow process, and could go on for a week or so.”

The firefighters have soaked the perimeter of the mill site to keep if from spreading into the nearby neighborhoods. Commissioner Wood said that someone has some explaining to do as to why this happened. She said that someone should have gotten a burn permit before setting fire to the debris pile.

She added it was her understanding that asbestos had been removed from the building but that other hazardous substances such as leadbased paint more than likely went up in the blaze, potentially endangering the health of people who live nearby.