Phoenix Boise Cascade's Medford, Oregon plywood plant has risen from the rubble less than a year after a fire
By Joni Sensel
A collection of photos in Dick Rudisile's office documents the fire that raged through Boise Cascade's Medford, Oregon, plywood plant in the early morning hours of September 7, 1998. An intense orange glow silhouettes the black skeletons of charred beams and machinery. To a casual observer, the photos capture a horrifying beauty. To people who worked at the mill, however, the fire was simply horrifying. "It was mass devastation," says Rudisile, Boise's area manager. The plant was burned virtually to the ground and some 450 employees lost their jobs. Nobody knew for several months how the company would respond. A year later, trucks rattle across the site, workers tramp over new roof structures, and a new plywood plant on the site is running at approximately 70 percent capacity. Some 200 employees have gone back to work. The decision to rebuild followed months of intense analysis that considered likely plywood markets in the future, the needs of other Boise facilities in the area and the best way to maximize the value of raw materials. More unexpectedly, the green light was influenced by the salvage efforts of employees. Salvage work had begun soon after the fire. Instead of hiring a contractor, the company hired laid off employees. "We wanted to give our own employees the work," notes Rudisile. That turned out to be an important decision. "When we started out in the fall," he says, "we thought everything was a total loss. But our own crews understood what was salvageable and what wasn't." "A (contract) salvager wouldn't have known what to keep-or even what it was," agrees Bill Patterson, production manager. "Familiarity with the equipment was a big advantage." Employees believed a lot of the blackened equipment could run again, says Rudisile. "The production people understood that the more they salvaged, the better the chance this mill would be rebuilt," he says.
Their efforts met skepticism from equipment contractors, who believed the surviving equipment would be useless. "We had suppliers who said the lay-up line would never run," Rudisile explains. Maintenance superintendent Mike Fyre wouldn't listen to such comments, however. Ultimately, he and the crews also decided that all six of the mill's Moore and Coe dryers, though suffering from warped doors or other minor damage, were worth keeping. . So were the steel structures beneath most of the plant's equipment. One Columbia press and most of another could be saved, along with two Williams/White press lines. Finishing equipment, on the other hand, made of lighter weight steel, turned out to be almost a total loss, except for one moderately damaged Kimwood sander. "It would have been easier to go out with a torch, cut it out and buy all new equipment," says Rudisile. "But the salvage was important because the company wasn't having a very good year that fall. Markets were down and money was tight-and knowing we had salvageable equipment helped a lot in the decision ." With the price tag on just one new dryer and necessary components approaching $3 million (US), the salvage turned out to be a multimillion dollar factor. The company won't release the cost of the rebuild, but Rudisile does say that taken together, the salvaged equipment probably cut the expense in half. The decision to rebuild was announced Christmas Eve, 1998.
Not everything originally operating at the site was included. "We elected not to rebuild the green end," Rudisile says, citing difficulties in securing raw material even before the fire. So instead of peeling logs, the company made plans to ship green veneer from Boise's other western Oregon veneer mills. The site's sawmill, although untouched by the fire, would also remain silent. It had to close when a debarker, shared with the plywood mill, sustained significant damage. Sawmill equipment was doled out to other company facilities, including the White City, Oregon, sawmill, which added a shift to take up the slack in production. Reconstruction on the plywood mill began in January 1999. It was a dirty, difficult task. "We were cleaning and salvaging at the same time as beginning the new construction," explains Rudisile. It took a sandblaster and the better part of a year just to remove soot and repaint salvaged structures- and that work still isn't done. Another hurdle was a mountain of fried concrete-57,500 tons of it. Rather than haul it to a landfill, Rudisile's team put the debris to good use. "We brought in a rock crusher and that concrete became the 3/4" minus under our new floor," he says. The crews also baled and recycled almost 3,600 tons of sheet metal. By August, employees were loading the first press load of laminated veneer. Boise engineers handled the design with help from local contractors, notably S&B James Construction. At 368,000 square feet, the resulting plant is roughly half the size of the original. "We had a real tough startup," notes Rudisile.
The startup required a whole new plant infrastructure, including the steam, compressed air, and glue systems. On that foundation the team started up two veneer dryers and a parallel laminated veneer (PLV) layup line with a George Koch & Sons glue curtaincoater and two presses. Two more dryers and the plant's second layup line, terminating in two more presses, were operational by early October.
The second layup line incorporates a Coe Manufacturing glue application system that essentially sprays glue on each veneer for crossgrain layup. With this second line in operation, the plant is currently producing sheathing as well as PLV panels that are shipped to other Boise mills for manufacture into laminated veneer lumber. Finishgrade plywood production awaits the startup of additional finishing equipment still under construction. A second, adjacent building and two more dryers will come on line by April 2000. When the plant reaches full production next spring, it will employ 300 people and produce roughly the same volume as before the fire-370 million square feet annually on a 3/8" basis. At that point the plant will be running two layup lines and four presses that feature from 20 to 36 bays each. The veneer dryers feed either Durand/Raute automatic stackers or pull chains, depending on the variety of output through each dryer. The finishing saws and rebuilt sander will be joined by a new Globe tongue and groove machine, and everything will be managed through Allen Bradley controls. Rudisile says the new plant boasts improvements over the original, which was built in the 1960s. "We couldn't change the basic placement of our presses and dryers," he says. "But we recon figured the flow of finished goods, hoping to eliminate backtracking and the need for two lift trucks. And whenever possible we changed little things like the attachment of platens to make maintenance easier."
A state-of-the-art Holt glue system, with automated operations managed by just one employee, replaces an antique forerunner. Environmental controls were also updated and mill wash water is now recycled into the glue system. Of course, the new building also features a number of fire prevention features such as steel and concrete construction and an improved deluge system in the dryers. "The building is much nicer, with great lighting," adds Rudisile. "I think that makes employee attitude even better." When it announced the rebuild, the company contemplated further expansion later. Rudisile says his efficient team is already well along with work (such as the two additional dryers) that once was considered for Phase II. He's proud of the accomplishment. "This has been an outstanding feat by the people involved," he says. He also takes pride in the 300 family wage jobs that the rebuild has saved.
In the interim, the company helped displaced employees by shifting some to other operations, involving others in salvage and reconstruction, extending insurance coverage, and adjusting seniority rules to protect longtime employees during the layoff. The community also played a part, offering employees job search support while providing the company with a variety of tax and permitting incentives to rebuild. "This is one of the few communities we're in that really supports the business," Rudisile notes. In fact, the rebuild helped both Rudisile and the company to receive Community Spirit awards from the Medford/Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. The community won't soon forget the disaster, nor will the hundreds of employees who nearly lost their jobs permanently. Reminders still linger on site. "We still have concrete to munch up," notes Rudisile. Pieces of the damaged barker await shipment to another mill, where it will be rebuilt and put to use. But the smiles on the faces of the plant's workforce suggest that, for the most part, the Medford team is back to business as usual.
This page last modified on Monday, November 03, 2003