Colville fire may shutter mill for six months

COULEE DAM, Wash. – The devastating fire that leveled portions of the Colville Indian Plywood and Veneer mill on the Colville Reservation on June 29 is having an even greater impact than first thought, both in total damages and length of time it will be closed.

Initial reports estimated damages in the range of $6 million to $9 million. The log-processing unit where debarkers and saws operate, and the conveyor belt that carries wood waste to the powerhouse, were both severely damaged. Fortunately, the fire was contained to one area and nobody was seriously hurt. It was hoped that the mill could be up and running within a month or two even if it meant buying veneer from Canada to begin making plywood, as the plywood production plant was not damaged.

The Colville Tribal Enterprise Corp.’s board of directors recently decided to keep the plywood and veneer operation closed until rebuilding has been completed. This process could take up to six months. In addition, the damage estimates now project losses in excess of $10 million.

Brian Clark, board chairman for CTEC, commented that they had been working around the clock with insurance companies “but the final coverage amount wouldn’t support purchasing green or dry veneer, which would have gotten us back in operation in early August.”

Clark said that insurance will pretty much cover the fire losses, so the biggest impact could be to the workers.

Approximately 150 people were laid off because of the fire and closure. Clark estimated that about 40 will be placed at other installations, including Colville Indian Precision Pine and Colville Tribal Service Corp., and that other workers will have priority for jobs throughout CTEC. The company is a large and diverse employer and manages 14 enterprises in north-central Washington employing nearly 1,000 people.

For the remainder who won’t receive a paycheck till the plant reopens, the situation can be devastating. Help in the form of food and money has been forthcoming from many sources, including individuals and community organizations. The Kalispell Tribe has made a donation as well. Clark mentioned that Second Harvest, a food company, was helping that day with two truckloads of food. “Various local business establishments have stepped up and offered whatever they can,” he commented.

Six months is a long time to depend on donations, and other options are being examined in addition to donations. “We’re trying to go after grants. We’re trying to figure out things internally in how we can help each other with our own enterprises. We’ve even thought of food vouchers from our own stores,” Clark commented. “We’re still sort of feeling it out.”

The Colville Tribe has established an account to receive donations for employees. To contribute, contact Sam Wilson in Human Resources at (509) 422-7035 or Michelle Campobasso at (509) 634-3220; or write CTEC, P.O. Box 5, Coulee Dam, WA 99116.