Waterfront destruction

Efforts to extinguish a massive fire on Duluth's waterfront that destroyed a wood products warehouse, several boats and heavy equipment Friday morning were hampered by failed attempts to pump water from the nearby slip, a fire official acknowledged.

Efforts to extinguish a massive fire on Duluth's waterfront that destroyed a wood products warehouse, several boats and heavy equipment Friday morning were hampered by failed attempts to pump water from the nearby slip, a fire official acknowledged.

But the fire at True North Cedar, a wood products manufacturer off 14th Avenue West and Railroad Street, was raging so fast when firefighters arrived that "the building was already engulfed and lost," said Assistant Fire Chief Mitch Peterson, the commander on the scene.

No one was injured in the blaze, which created billowing clouds of black, acrid smoke that fanned out from the Lincoln Park/West End neighborhood to Proctor.

Peterson said firefighters got the call at 8:13 a.m. and were on the scene at 8:17 a.m.

"As soon as I came off Fifth Avenue West, I reported over the radio that we had lots of fire and lots of smoke -- the flames were 30 feet in the air and there was a huge black column of smoke," Peterson said. "It was a big fire."


Peterson said he immediately called it a defensive fire. Everybody was out of the building and firefighters weren't going in. They focused on protecting the adjacent 850-foot-long Duluth Timber building.

He said firefighters also were concerned about three commercial-sized propane gas tanks near the fire.

"We were cooling them off so they don't explode and create a boiling liquid evaporating pressure explosion," he said. "An exploding tank that size can take out a city block."

The fire destroyed about $500,000 worth of property and equipment, business owner Hobart Finn said.

True North Cedar employs 11 people, who produce a variety of wood products. Finn said the business had been thriving, and he planned to add a night shift next week -- a move that stood to double the size of his work force. Finn said he had additional equipment on order.

Despite the fire, Finn said True North Cedar will endure.

"Within 60 days, we'll be back and operating," he said.

Dave Zezulka of Cloquet said he had worked at the business only two weeks.


"I don't know what I'm going to do now," he said. "You come to work as usual ... and then suddenly you don't have a job anymore.''

Finn said the fire broke out about 8 a.m. He tried to put out the fire with on-site extinguishers, "but once it hit the sawdust, it started going fast."

Finn said he grew increasingly frustrated as firefighters worked for a time without success to get water on the flames. Finn and other employees yelled at firefighters to put out the fire.

"I lost my whole life, everything. ... Oh god, oh god," Finn said as he drove away in his truck. "It's just too much to believe."

Peterson acknowledged that his department had problems pulling water out of a nearby slip and then was delayed by having to run a hose more than half a mile away.

"We were trying to save the building to the north [Duluth Timber Company, which shares a building with True North Cedar]," Peterson said, "which we were able to do."

Finn said the firefighters' lack of response destroyed his business and led to needless property damage. Firefighters started dousing the building with water about 8:50 a.m.

Peterson declined to comment on Finn's criticism.


"We do an incident critique analysis after all our fires, and we need to do that," Peterson said. "I've got to gather information from everybody. ... It was difficult access, a lot of combustibles and the biggest building down there is undamaged."

Fire Chief John Strongitharm said: "We were delayed getting water to it, but we were in a defensive mode on the burning part when we showed up. Could we have saved a sailboat or two if we maybe had water? That's possible, but the building itself was gone."

Finn said he didn't know how the fire started.

Employees said the fire appeared to have started in sawdust between the building and the sawmill outside. Efforts by employees with fire extinguishers failed to slow the fire, and employees tried but failed to start a pump that was on hand to fight fires. The pump motor wouldn't run.

The fire was mostly out by 10 a.m., but several crews remained on hand into the afternoon, spraying water laced with foam onto the smoldering rubble. The foam helps bond the water to the surface of anything that might rekindle.

About four to five small explosions could be heard from the warehouse as the fire raged. Hobart said those probably were caused by two propane tanks and two to three drums of oil inside.

Finn said he had $1 million in liability insurance but only $50,000 in property insurance on the building, which won't begin to cover damage from the fire. He estimated that True North lost more than $50,000 in finished product in the blaze, not to mention equipment.

However, Finn said that the five vehicles that comprise Julie's Big Trucks, the trucking company he and his wife operate, were on the road when the fire occurred. Two new diesel engines on the premises were destroyed.


Several boats being stored on the property, in various states of repair and disrepair, were damaged or destroyed, some entirely burned out.

A large crane also appeared heavily damaged. The fire burned so hot that it melted the tires of the crane parked at the water's edge.

Finn lost two large boats in the fire: a 47-foot sailboat dubbed Unity worth more than $100,000, and the Halcyon II, a 42-foot wooden boat that he was working to restore. The Essayons, an 85-foot tugboat Finn plans to one day turn into a floating bed and breakfast, escaped the blaze undamaged.

Employees were able to move a Bobcat, forklift, two trucks and some tools out of harm's way, but much of the business's tools and equipment were destroyed. Employees inside the destroyed building were working to band and ship pallets of wood shingles and were backlogged because of strong sales.

The fire spared giant piles of mulch and sawdust and stacks of logs and wood nearby.

Strongitharm called in off-duty firefighters and asked the Superior Fire Department for assistance through use of its fireboat, according to a news release.

Superior Fire Department Battalion Chief Richard Rugg said three Superior firefighters responded to the fire in the fireboat, which was put into action for the first time since being purchased through a $125,000 Homeland Security grant last winter.

The 27-foot boat has a large nozzle mounted in its center that is able to elevate and turn side to side to put 1,000 gallons of water a minute on a fire.


"They were hitting the hot spots along the side of the main fire," Peterson said. "They put out the fire that got underneath the dock. There was no way [for the rigs] to get down into there."

News Tribune staff writers Mark Stodghill, Peter Passi and John Myers contributed to this report.

What To Read Next
Get Local