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History of fires underscores challenges of Schellville wooden pallet factory

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Sonoma Pacific Co. has learned a thing or two about fire.

The company’s wooden pallet factory in Schellville has been struck by three fires in 11 years. The most recent broke out Tuesday afternoon, when a three-alarm blaze destroyed stacks upon stacks of pallets and mounds of mulch in an outdoor storage area, prompting a mandatory evacuation of nearby neighborhoods.

Each fire has been unique. A 2007 fire was caused by a lumber treatment device that malfunctioned, said facilities manager Rob Mortensen. A much larger 2013 blaze was touched off by a tow truck driving down an adjacent road, where sparks from a chain dragged behind the truck set fire to grass outside the plant.

“What we learned from the last one has had a great impact,” said Mortensen, who has been with Sonoma Pacific for nearly six years.

Investigators believe they know where Tuesday’s fire started inside the Fremont Drive company. They have ruled out electrical causes, but have not determined what exactly sparked the blaze. A final report is due early next week.

“It definitely started inside the yard,” said Schell-Vista Fire Chief Ray Mulas. “It’s looking like it’s going toward human error, but we’re not there yet.”

Sonoma Pacific owner Tommy Thompson said the company has placed a much greater emphasis on limiting the damage from a potential fire since he bought the business 2½ years ago.

“It’s like night and day,” he said. “In the past the buildings burned. This time the buildings didn’t burn. It’s very different, and the fire was contained in an area.”

Following the October wildfires, Thompson purchased a 2,000-gallon water tanker so workers can spray down pallets stored outside and awaiting shipment to customers including Chevron, Amy’s Kitchen organic foods and Opus One Winery, who use the pallets to transport merchandise.

Employees and firefighters fought the flames with water from the tanker, a critical tool in an area of the county that lacks fire hydrants. Crews responding to the 12:30 p.m. Tuesday fire immediately ordered extra mobile water resources from fire departments in Napa and Marin counties to assist on what became a 4½-hour battle.

“This fire was not able to spread any further than it did. We have our water (tanker) with fire hoses on it. And we have wider-than-normal fire lanes, which helped contain the fire where it was and it didn’t expand into the factory and surrounding areas too badly,” Mortensen said.

Thompson said he’s also limited on-site raw material to less than a week’s worth of production, and committed six full-time workers to breaking down and recycling old pallets rather than allowing them to stack up in the storage yard for weeks on end, among other mitigation tactics.

After Tuesday’s fire, Thompson said he next plans to buy a couple of high-temperature fire suits so employees can be more involved in suppressing any future blazes.

Tuesday’s fire was much smaller than the 2013 blaze, even though it included a 1,000-gallon propane tank exploding in a violent fireball, said Sonoma Valley Fire Chief Steve Akre, who helped supervise the response. The half-acre blaze required about 90 firefighters, two air tankers, a helicopter and a bulldozer to knock down.

While unfortunate, Mulas said fires are simply a risk for a lumber-centric business with a need to stack and store the finished product outside for varied lengths of time.

“It’s a difficult operation,” he said. “You’ve got all that wood ... and things get old. You just have inventory sitting there.”

Sonoma Pacific Co. was established in 1972 after taking over the production factory from a boat builder at the same location, said Thompson.

The facility, which dates to at least the 1960s, does not have a fire sprinkler system on the interior or exterior of the plant, according to Mortensen, who noted the fire appeared to start in pallets stacked away from the building.

The county has required sprinkler systems since 2003 inside all new commercial and residential buildings, as well as on the exterior depending on how each is constructed. The ordinance does not demand the retrofitting of older buildings that met the codes of their era, according to Sonoma County fire inspector Steve Mosiurchak.

The Schell-Vista Fire Department contracts with the county’s fire prevention division for new business inspections in its jurisdiction, and Mosiurchak said inspections at existing facilities like Sonoma Pacific Co. are not routine. Instead, they’re based on complaints, including one about the pallet factory this past fall from someone concerned about debris piled up along Fremont Drive.

“Our inspectors were out there last October to follow up on a complaint,” he said, adding he’s not aware of another against the company in his 17 years on the job. “It was addressed and cleared.”

Sonoma Pacific’s insurance company is conducting its own investigation and working through what was devoured by Tuesday’s flames, including another of the lumber treatment devices that was turned off at the time of the fire. It caused an estimated $200,000 in damage, a fire official said.

Company employees spent time Wednesday cleaning up the property and answering questions from Sonoma Valley Fire investigators called in to assist.

The power was restored that afternoon, and Thompson and staff sat down with fire officials to talk about what the business can improve upon to prevent and contain future fires. Pallet production resumed Thursday.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com.