Medlock Forest Products To Focus On Reopening Charleston Plant After Fire
By Rusty Garrett Times Record
Many residents of Charleston are taking the fire that heavily damaged the Medlock Forest Products pallet plant as a personal loss, or at least a setback.
The Tuesday night blaze destroyed the main assembly building, machinery, tools and about 4,000 wooden pallets before firefighters from four area departments got it under control, according to Matt White, vice president of sales and operations for the facility.
Charleston Volunteer Fire Chief Shawn Lovett said firefighters arrived at the scene about 8:45 p.m. when about ¼ of the building was engulfed in flames, but it didn’t take long for the fire to spread.
“It was a big fire; just a massive, massive fire,” Lovett said. “Those little pallets, they’re hollow through and they just burn hot and burn quick. It was a hot fire.”
EMS treated two firefighters at the scene for heat exhaustion, but neither required hospital treatment, Lovett said. Nobody was at the plant when the fire started and no other injuries were reported.
Lovett said the cause of the fire is under investigation, but he speculated it might have been electrical.
Volunteer firefighters from Branch, Big Creek and Lavaca assisted and spent nearly four hours at the scene, Lovett said, allowing the flames to overtake the building while they sprayed water on a nearby office, mill and home.
“We pretty much just gave up on stopping the building. We were just trying to keep everything else from catching on fire around it,” Lovett said. “(The flames) got really close to the office and the house. As a matter of fact, there were flames surrounding the office, all around it and over it, but we managed to save the office and the house.”
White said the fire occurred just as the plant, which had been idled for several months during an economic downturn, had resumed production.
“Our immediate goal is to get back up to full production,” White said Wednesday. “We’ve had people who have worked here for years and they are counting on us for a job.”
White said the plant’s milling operation and office were not damaged. He said work there could resume as early as Monday. Meanwhile, a search is on for a vacant building in Charleston that can be converted to an assembly room until the fire damage can be cleaned up and a new building erected at Medlock’s Main Street location.
Some of the 25 workers at the plant have been temporarily reassigned to the company’s Fort Smith plant. Others are working on cleanup.
“Hopefully everybody will be back to work within two weeks,” White said.
The plant is owned by General Pallets Inc., a Fort Smith-based business that also owns William’s Wood Products in Fort Smith and Ozark Wood Products in Goodman, Mo.
White said Wednesday a stream of Charleston area residents were stopping at the plant the check on damage and express concern.
“The plant is a staple of the community,” White said. “It seems as if almost everybody in Charleston has worked there at one time, or knows someone who worked there. It’s a part of the town history.”
Charleston Mayor Sherman Hiatt agreed, adding that he has a personal role in that history.
“I worked at the plant in the summers, as well as many of the youths around here,” Hiatt said Wednesday.
Hiatt said the plant had its origins during World War II when businessman Herman Adams secured a government contract to manufacture wooden ammunition boxes for artillery shells. After the war, the plant converted to peacetime use in manufacturing a variety of wood products. Ownership transferred to the Medlock family and then to General Pallets, which is owned by Fort Smith businessman Phil White.
“I appreciate the Whites for taking steps to keep it going,” Hiatt said. “It’s an important part of our local economy and provides several jobs that really help.”
Lavanda Clark, who lives at the nearby house and works as the company’s office manager, said her family was fortunate the firefighters kept the flames from reaching her home.
“We’re feeling lucky, actually,” Clark said. “It could’ve been a lot worse; no one was hurt. They saved a lot. I know it looks really bad, but everything that burned can be replaced. We didn’t lose anything irreplaceable.”
Once she got outside, Clark tried to get her purse from her home but thought better of it, she said. She could feel the heat and embers falling from the sky, and decided to stay out of the firefighters’ way.
“I was prepared to lose my house. I mean, you can’t really prepare, but I just knew that it was next,” Clark said. “I just sat and watched. When everyone showed up … we all just kind of watched.”
Aside from a few broken windows in the office and the main building burned to the ground, Clark said she was OK, and praised the firefighters’ work.
“They stopped the fire. It’s a miracle,” she said. “They really did a great job last night.”
The fire came four days after a similar fire at Pine Moore Shavings, a wood chip manufacturer in Waldron about 45 miles away. Firefighters were forced to let that building burn down as well, with no injuries reported.
Times Record reporters Stacy Ryburn and Rachel Rodemann contributed to this report.