Fire shuts down Gypsum biomass plant
GYPSUM – Kelly Bretta says she’s not a fan of the biomass plant next to her home, but that didn’t stop her from strapping on an orange safety vest during a pre-dawn fire and directing firefighters toward a gravel driveway to fight the three-alarm fire.
Conveyor belt to blame
A conveyor carrying wood chips into the biomass power plant sparked the pre-dawn fire Saturday, rallying firefighter crews from as far away as Rifle.
At about 4:05 a.m. during a routine inspection, a plant employee discovered the fire started at the top of an outdoor conveyor belt system, said Dean Rostrom, chairman of Eagle Valley Clean Energy, the plant’s developer. Those conveyors move wood chips into fuel silos.
The fire spread along parts of the conveyor system, disabling it, but did not touch the main plant’s buildings, Rostrom said.
Huge piles of wood chips were also undisturbed by the fire, thanks to quick work by firefighters who came from every agency in Eagle County, as well as some from Garfield County, said Justin Kirkland, Gypsum fire chief, whose crews were first on the scene.
When firefighters arrived, flames were jumping up to 20 feet out of the top of the two silos in the front of the plant, Kirkland said.
No injuries or major damage were reported.
The facility has temporarily ceased power production while the conveyor system is repaired, Rostrom said.
Looking for fire
Bretta said she woke up about 4:20 a.m. to flashing lights from emergency vehicles speeding toward the fire.
She said she looked out the window and saw the flames climbing up the exterior silos and conveyor belts.
“The belt was completely engulfed,” she said.
The plant is easy to spot from both Interstate 70 and Highway 6 in Gypsum, but in the pre-dawn darkness crews struggled to find the gravel driveway — the only way in or out of the plant.
After a couple crews hurriedly asked for help, Bretta, who works at the Eagle County Regional Airport, grabbed her orange safety vest and stood on Highway 6 in the dark, directing firefighters and emergency personnel toward the gravel driveway.
“One road in and out was a problem last night,” Bretta said.
In a written statement, Rostrom said he’s grateful to the firefighters and others who responded.
“All of us here at Eagle Valley Clean Energy want to thank the local fire departments who responded to the call so quickly and professionally, preventing the fire from spreading, and to the Town of Gypsum, neighbors and the Salvation Army food vendor volunteers that all helped with the situation,” Rostrom said. “We deeply appreciate the selfless service rendered and recognize that many of you are volunteers and that all of you sacrificed a precious Saturday during the busy Christmas season.”
Not universally loved
While the biomass plant has been a darling of state and federal politicians and some environmental groups, Bretta and others have opposed it since it was first proposed. They say they’re concerned about air quality, and what might have happened if something like the Saturday morning fire had flamed out of control.
“If it happened in the summer when things are dry, it could be a catastrophe,” Bretta said. “We are concerned for the safety of our community.”
Clean energy or not?
The plant cost $56 million to build. The U.S. Department of Agriculture came up with a $40 million loan guarantee.
Eagle Valley Clean Energy developed the plant, which started generating electricity last December.
Bretta lives next door, and says she worries about what burning 250 tons of wood each day will do to the air quality. The American Lung Association opposes biomass plants.
Rostrom has said his company uses state-of-the-art filters, and insists the plant exceeds all air permit requirements.
He also said the plant is a source of renewable energy by using beetle-killed trees from forest land within a 75-mile radius of the plant, as well as wood waste from the Eagle County landfill.
Structure fire in Vail’s Intermountain
The fire at the biomass plant was the second of the morning for local crews.
At 2 a.m. crews from Vail Fire & Emergency Services were dispatched to a unit in a three-unit townhome building at 2700 Larkspur Court.
Firefighters found a small fire burning behind a couch inside the two-story residence. It was quickly extinguished, however the unit was full of smoke, which took firefighters additional time to ventilate the residence, the Vail Fire Department said.
All six occupants in the residence were safely evacuated after being alerted by one of the occupants, who was awakened by the smell of smoke. A smoke detector in the unit was found to be inoperable.
Investigators said the fire was caused by a blanket that had fallen on top of a baseboard heater. A couch had been pushed up against the heater causing the blanket to smolder and catch fire which then spread to a wall and window sill, causing significant smoke damage. There were no injuries.
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