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Sawmill Fire Contained By Firefighters, Debris Still Smoldering

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J.L. Wood Gator Reman sawmill employees work to remove debris after a shed caught on fire Wednesday morning. They hope to be fully operational by Friday, said owner John Whitehead. Abbie Banitt / WUFT News
J.L. Wood Gator Reman sawmill employees work to remove debris after a shed caught on fire Wednesday morning. They hope to be fully operational by Friday, said owner John Whitehead. Abbie Banitt / WUFT News

As the sun rose Wednesday, smoke was beginning to rise with it off of State Route 121.

About 50 firefighters worked to contain a fire at a Worthington Springs sawmill. The blaze was most likely caused by a lightning strike from storms Tuesday night, according to the Union County Sheriff’s Office.

The fire continues to smolder as sawmill workers try to clear debris.

A person reported seeing smoke and flames at the northwestern portion of a J.L Wood Gator Reman sawmill building to 911 around 6 a.m. on Wednesday, said Capt. Doug York of the Union County Sheriff’s Office.

The Union County Fire Department arrived minutes after and worked to contain the intensifying fire.

“It wasn’t a huge fire,” York said. “But you are dealing with wood product that has a high content of turpentine which would certainly help it progress quickly.”

John Whitehead, owner of J.L. Wood Gator Reman sawmill, said he learned about the fire in voicemail from a customer.

“That’s when I called one of the guys who shows up to work at 6 a.m. and he told me that a fire truck was arriving,” Whitehead said.

The fire broke out in a storage shed destroying about 25 semitrailer loads of lumber valued from $5,000 to $7,000 a load, he said. Most of the equipment was stored in the other sheds and was undamaged.

Firefighters were unable to put out the fire. Instead, they worked to contain it.

“Because so much lumber was stacked, it was getting hot enough that they knew they couldn’t put it out,” he said. “They just tried to keep it from coming to these other three sheds, which they were able to do.”

The fire was contained without injury, but there were a lot of worn out Union County firefighters, according to York.

“In addition to trying to save product, they were trying to save equipment, too,” York said. “So, they had their hands full.”

York said he was happy fire units from the cities of Lake Butler, Worthington Springs and High Springs, as well as Bradford and Colombia counties, were able to help.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but there are no indications that it was anything other than an accident, York said.

“Through data obtained from the National Weather Service and lightning observatories that show the lightning strikes in that area, every indication is that this is what occurred,” York said.

Whitehead’s family has owned the sawmill since 1988 when it was first opened by his father-in-law.

Nothing like this has happened before, he said.

“We had a tornado touch down here maybe 10 or 15 years ago that came through and tore a big section of our roof off on this particular shed,” Whitehead said. “That had to be replaced and set us back with some damage, but that was a quick fix. It was nothing like this.”

The shed is not covered by insurance, he said, but the equipment is.

Whitehead plans to continue working and hopes to get the sawmill back to being fully operational by Friday.

About Abbie Banitt

Abbie is a reporter for WUFT News. Reach him by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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