It was a robbery gone bad–very bad. Last August, a thief broke into Dunmore (Pa.) Lumber Co. When he discovered he had been caught on camera, the intruder torched the building. Up in flames went Dunmore's offices, hardware fasteners, and the millwork section, including windows and interior and exterior doors.

"The robber set the fire to cover his tracks," Dunmore owner Ron Cordaro says. Unfortunately, the fire also claimed the camera system that would have identified the assailant. "We would have had him," Cordaro says. "Our mistake was that we had the recording device on the same site, and we lost the tape."

Dunmore's commodities survived the blaze, and the business reopened in a matter of days. Since rebuilding its offices, the dealer has made a number of changes, including using masonry rather than sticks to construct a new headquarters.

The National Fire Protection Association no longer reports specific statistics for lumberyard fires, but if its 1994-1998 data hold true today, then America is seeing an average of one fire at an LBM facility per week. Press reports suggest that rate hasn't slowed this year–and it might, in fact, have increased.

Blame Mother Nature for some of those blazes. Tom DeNeal, co-owner of DeNeal's Building and Supply, says that last Nov. 10, weather officials reported more than 300 lightning strikes within a 3-mile radius of his yard in Harrisburg, Ill. Several of those strikes pierced the DeNeal offices–one striking just a few feet from Tom's desk–and reduced the headquarters to a cinder. "We were fortunate that the commodities were not damaged," DeNeal says; however, his business's records, hardware offerings, and paint and sundries were destroyed.

After arson and natural disaster, faulty electrical units cause the majority of fires that occur in lumberyards, according to Joe McCrea, senior vice president of claims for the Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Co., which covers 2,000 yards in 42 states.

Many electrical fires at yards typically break out this way: dealers have inside personnel install new electrical lines that lead to new or add-on yard machinery, such as saws. What results are lines that are faulty or not up to code and likely to ignite a blaze.

Although McCrea is not against self-installed work, he suggests that dealers also hire an outside electrician who can inspect the lines at a cost that is inexpensive. For instance, the use of a thermography camera can identify "hot spots" that are potential hazards, including connections that have come loose or areas where sawdust has piled up.

Open flames, such as an ember or torch, are another leading cause of blazes. Local fire officials believe a fire that caused $150,000 worth of destruction, including commodities, at Turman's Sawmill in Hillsville, Va., last May was ignited by embers from a boiler. Firefighters were able to save about half the yard's lumber.

Similar situations involve parking hot vehicles too close to flammable sources, especially in winter when trucks are parked indoors.

"It all goes back to housekeeping," McCrea says. "Nobody goes by and pays attention to these things." He suggests keeping a checklist of potential fire hazards that are inspected from time to time.

If the yard is accessible to railroad tracks, watch for a neutral zone where neither a lumberyard nor local rail company claims ownership. McCrea suggests trimming weeds and tall grass that might grow in the area. "That is a fire waiting to happen. When it gets dry, it doesn't take much to set kindling off," he says.

Finally, both Hall and McCrea agree that employees fighting fires themselves is yet another recipe for disaster. A call to 911 is not placed and in an instant, the fire is out of control.

"I can't tell you how often I see situations like that. It's incredible," McCrea says.

–Andy Carlo

How To Avoid Getting Burned

Insurance firms and fire officials suggest taking these steps to prevent fires within a lumberyard: n Check your electrical wiring. Make sure connections are up to code and free of dirt and debris such as sawdust, which can pile up and cause a short. If rewiring is done in-house, have an electrician inspect the work.

  • Designate smoking areas. Keep cigarette smoking as far away from commodities and flammables as possible–or eliminate it from the yard completely.
  • Keep weeds and grass along rail corridors trimmed. Left unchecked, weeds and grass can become kindling for a number of sources, including lit cigarettes.
  • Keep fire extinguishers handy. Place fire extinguishers in multiple locations throughout a yard, and check routinely that they are in working order. This is invaluable in older yards that may not maintain a sprinkler system.
  • Pay attention to open flames. Embers from boilers, particularly wood-fed systems, or welding torches can spark fires. Keep these areas clean and free from flammable debris, such as packing materials made of paper.
  • Let hot trucks cool. Especially during winter months, when vehicles are parked indoors, make sure trucks are not left hot at the end of the workday near flammable substances.
  • Don't fight the fire by yourself. If a fire does break out, call 911 and report the emergency before trying to tackle it in-house. Attempts by yard personnel to fight fires have resulted in disasters that could have been prevented.

–Andy Carlo