The Christmas fire that destroyed the historic Butte Creek Mill was caused by an electrical malfunction in the milling room, investigators have determined.
After a two-month investigation, in which many theories were developed and tested, fire and insurance investigators determined the cause to be accidental.
The mill’s arcane construction, electrical wiring and frigid night air conspired to mask a smoldering fire that may well have begun Christmas Eve.
Heat from the malfunctioning electrical unit ignited a smoldering fire in a concealed space on the west side of the milling room. The fire spread slowly between the ceiling of the milling room and the floor planks of the second story until the structural elements gave way, Jackson County Fire District 3 Deputy Chief John Patterson said this week.
“Because it was a cold night, and wood smoke was in the air, no one could smell it,” Patterson said. “If it had been in July, it might have been more apparent.”
The collapse pushed smoke, gas and burning materials into the lobby and adjacent rooms, Patterson said. The open-plank construction and exposed wood were easily ignited and the fire grew rapidly, spreading throughout the 144-year-old mill.
The fire could have been burning for a few hours, or as many as 10, Patterson said.
“We’re not sure how much space was involved,” he said. “It can smolder without oxygen.”
Even with electrical updates from time to time, the wiring involved was likely older.
“Electric services don’t last forever,” he said.
When firefighters arrived shortly after 4 a.m., they found half of the 5,522-square-foot mill engulfed in flames.
The mill was a total loss, but a neighboring 2,275-square-foot antique shop escaped the flames.
Butte Creek Mill owner Bob Russell indicated a general time line for resumption of activity. Asked about milling elsewhere, he said it wasn’t as easy of a proposition as he first thought.
“We’ve discussed that, and I’ve spoken with some people in the Springfield area who make flour using millstones, and there are a lot of little details to work out,” Russell said. “We may be producing eight or 10 of our favorite products and have them available on the website. It’s more complicated than I thought it might be, like everything else.”
He said a nonprofit component is in the works that will allow people to make tax deductible contributions.
Russell said he hoped to have an architectural rendering and a fully developed plan by May 14, the date of this year’s Vintage Fair.
“We want to truly find a way to make (the mill) part of the community again and a central part of the community and have it rise from the ashes,” he said.”I’d like a year from now (to) have part of the structure up.”
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