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Rising from Ashes: Trinity County Eagerly Awaits Rebuilt Mill’s Hum

WEAVERVILLE – In a region stung by recession, the much-anticipated restart of the Trinity River Lumber Co. signals a hopeful beginning.

More than 16 months ago, the mill – Trinity County’s largest private employer – burned down in a dramatic blaze along Highway 299. Hundreds of residents watched in disbelief as the large structure went up in flames accidentally sparked by a welder’s torch.

Any day now, the mill’s workers hope to start full production at a new, $20-million facility. Operators have been testing the equipment since a late December open house and ribbon-cutting ceremony, attended by several hundred people.

The decision by mill owner Frank Schmidbauer to rebuild after the Sept. 12, 2009, blaze came as a big relief to area residents. The mill employed about 140 people – and hopes to employ about 120 eventually, managers said.

“This mill is very important to the future of this community and county,” said Jim Knight, the personnel manager. “When it burned, they were in the dark about what would happen to the area.”

As the new sawmill – which is nearly twice as big as the original — opened its doors last month, employees and area residents began to celebrate the next chapter in a story that began so grimly nearly a year-and-a-half ago.

A spark from a welder's torch started the Sept. 12, 2009, blaze that destroyed a portion of the Trinity River Lumber Co.'s mill in Weaverville.

Sept. 12, 2009

General Manager Dee Sanders had just gotten into his vehicle that Saturday morning in Weaverville, headed to a logging conference in Redding. It was shortly after 10:30 a.m.

“I came around the corner in town just as the fire started,” he said. “I drove into the yard and saw we were quickly losing control. That was traumatic. Needless to say, we didn’t make it to Redding.”

The fire was sparked by a maintenance worker using a cutting torch on a piece of equipment inside the sawmill. The sprinkler system in that part of the sawmill, which was built in the mid-’50s, didn’t function properly.

“It was a perfect-storm scenario,” said Sanders, who has worked at the mill since the Schmidbauer family purchased it in 1983.

In June last year, the lumber company filed a lawsuit against the Weaverville Community Services District and Northwood Backflow Services, claiming that repairs had impacted the mill’s fire suppression system. The case is pending in Shasta County Superior Court.

As Sanders was arriving at the mill, 27-year employee Steve Simmons was splitting wood behind his house. When the phone rang, his wife answered. She told him the bad news.

“I jumped in my truck and ran down to see what I could do to help,” Simmons said. “By the time I got there, it was fully engulfed. I was doing whatever I could but was told if I wasn’t part of the Fire Department, I should leave the property.

“So I came home and cried,” he said. “It was just the loss and the question of what are we going to do now.”

As the blaze roared, volunteer firefighters from throughout Trinity County joined Cal Fire. Two air tankers zoomed low over the town, dropping retardant in an effort to keep the fire from spreading to massive stacks of logs and lumber. A helicopter dumped water on the flames.

Personnel manager Knight was returning home from vacation that day. He was hauling an RV up Buckhorn Summit from Redding when he got a call that the mill was ablaze.

“At that point I couldn’t drive fast enough,” he said. “I got here shortly after the fire was put out. It was still smoking and smoldering when I arrived.”

Aftermath

The weeks following the blaze were a blur of fire investigators and insurance agents as the shocked mill workers and community began to absorb the harsh reality.

“Everybody thinks, what’s going to happen now? Do we have jobs? Will the company go on?” Knight said. “It was quite a while before those questions were answered. We just took each day one at a time and dealt with what was in front of us.”

Knight, who had been with the Schmidbauer family for 16 years and at Trinity River Lumber for nine, faced a daunting task.

“I was here before sunrise til late in the evening every day for a long time, just dealing with issues,” he said. “I had a lot of people coming to me asking questions. At the beginning, I couldn’t give many answers.”

Knight spent the first week or two notifying workers of layoffs. The mill hired a disaster recovery consultant to help sort through all that needed to be done. At one point, investigators closed the mill to all personnel while they sifted through debris, Knight said.

Once the weekslong investigation was completed, a cleanup company brought in equipment to clear the site for the next few months.

“They hired mill workers and other locals,” Knight said. “That worked out well.”

The rebuilt mill is about twice as big as the original and contains updated and modernized equipment.

Simmons, who worked as an edgerman, recalled the mill’s owners holding a meeting for all employees a few days after the fire.

“They said right then that the plan was to rebuild, but they had to weigh everything out and see if they could pull it off,” he said. “They set us up with unemployment people, telling us who to talk to and where to go from there.”

Simmons raised his hand when they asked if anyone wanted to work security at the damaged mill. “The following Monday, I got to go to work,” he said. “I was off work only one week.”

He worked a 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, feeling fortunate to have the job. But the uncertain future of the mill hung like heavy smoke over the town.

“Of course my wife and I were sitting around thinking, what are we going to do? Are we going to have to move? After all these years, you just don’t know what you’re going to do. When you’re 56 years old and lose your job, especially in this economy, you wonder, now what?” he said.

Knight, the personnel manager, said he went into “overdrive” during those first months. “I was working each day not knowing if my job was ending,” he said. “I didn’t think about it too much.”

It was months before the mill’s owners knew whether insurance would help cover costs to rebuild, he said. Early damage estimates were $13 million to $20 million, the Redding Record Searchlight reported.

In an effort to keep some workers employed – and to keep customers – Trinity River Lumber negotiated to lease the Siller Brothers Sound Stud Mill in Anderson, which had been closed for two years.

Longtime mill worker Calvin Graham was one of about 40 employees who went to work at the Anderson plant. It meant longer daily commutes and schedule adjustments. But Graham, who has worked for Trinity River Lumber for 26 years, insisted it was no big deal.

“I feel fortunate,” he said. “Frank (Schmidbauer)’s been a good person to work for.”

Decision to rebuild

Once the final decision was made to rebuild, work began in earnest in the spring. The rest of the old mill had to be torn down and hauled off, plans made for the new mill, and building permits secured. When workers realized the new mill wouldn’t fit the old mill’s framework, they had to jackhammer the old cement structure to make a new foundation, Knight said.

The main contractors for the rebuilding project were Oregon-based companies Batzer Construction Inc. and West Coast Industrial. Throughout the project, up to 70 local people were hired as subcontractors, he said.

The decision to rebuild the sawmill was due to “a commitment to the community and the employees,” said Sanders, the general manager, adding, “We need to have at least one sawmill in Trinity County.” In 1996, Sierra Pacific Industries had closed its lumber mill in the neighboring town of Hayfork, a loss of some 150 jobs.

Mill owner Frank Schmidbauer cuts the ribbon at an open house Dec. 20 at the new facility.

Sanders acknowledged that it’s a “pretty scary” economy in which to rebuild. The Western Wood Products Association reported that sawmills in the 12 Western states posted the worst overall year for production in modern history in 2009. Mills in California produced 1.44 billion board feet of lumber, down almost 25 percent from the previous year. The lack of home building nationwide contributed to the decline.

Last month, the Redding Record Searchlight reported that longtime Hayfork wood products manufacturer Jefferson State Forest Products is also closing. The plant employs 29 people, the newspaper reported.

An editorial in the Trinity Journal newspaper two days after the Dec. 20 ribbon-cutting at the new mill praised owner Schmidbauer for his commitment to the community.

“Many feared that Trinity County’s largest private employer would call it quits, but Schmidbauer is not a quitter,” it read. “Schmidbauer knew the importance of the mill to Weaverville and Trinity County. He knew closing the mill down would cost 140 jobs and devastate an already depressed economy.

“He couldn’t just take the (insurance) money and run. Instead he chose to make an investment that will benefit the county for many years to come.”

Community impact and response

About five years ago, Trinity River Lumber Co. installed some vending machines on the premises that began earning a profit.

“We decided to take the profits and start a club to help employees in cases of emergency,” Knight said. The Golden Rule Club was born, with money being used to help employees struggling with illness or other family emergencies.

After the fire, donations poured into the fund. “We probably went over $50,000 in donations over the past year,” Knight said, adding that the club had to file for tax-exempt status.

That generosity was indicative of the widespread response to the devastating blaze. Many organizations held fundraisers to help.

“Everybody in the community was involved,” Knight said.

The loss of such a large employer has had a ripple effect – from truckers who hauled logs to many business owners.

“Everybody in Weaverville was impacted by it,” said mill worker Graham, 57, who has five children, four of them in Weaverville. “When regular paychecks stop flowing, people start cutting back, not buying things they usually buy.”

Simmons, the edgerman, said local business owners stepped in to help despite the impact on them. “They gave us discounts and did everything they could,” he said. “People have just had to tighten up and do they best they could.”

Several hundred people attended last month's open house at the new sawmill.

A hopeful future

As the community waits eagerly for the sawmill to start full production – “never will mill whistles sound so beautiful,” the Trinity Journal’s editorial said – there are still hurdles to overcome.

Getting the kinks worked out of the new equipment is a priority. There will also be staffing adjustments, Knight said.

“I keep thinking one of these days things will get back to normal,” he said. “But I think there’s a new normal.”

-Candace L. Brown has been a magazine and newspaper journalist since 1992. She drove through Weaverville on the day the mill burned and remembers the helpless feeling of watching that Highway 299 landmark go up in flames. Candace lives in Redding and can be reached at candace.freelance@gmail.com.

-Photos courtesy of Jim Knight.

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