DAYTON — Rebuilding is underway, and safety plans are being discussed, at an agricultural residue innovation center/mini-pulp mill here after a fire destroyed it in January.

Mark Lewis, owner of Innovatio, said the charred remains of the burned building on Wagon Road were being demolished, and some of the equipment was being salvaged for the new site. He said he also was purchasing new equipment and plans to house the center at an adjacent building, on the same land, from the burn site.

The business focuses on ag-residue technology, researching the use of non-wood fiber pulp and its byproducts for products such as disposable plates. Several companies are involved, such as Phoenix Pulp and Polymer, which owns the lab. Sustainable Fiber Technologies, where Lewis is chief technology officer, researches.

Part of the new building isn’t enclosed yet, Lewis said, but it will be, bringing the square footage to about 7,700. And, the center will be concrete and metal, he said, much safer than the former one, which was mostly wood, pieced together over time.

He said he’s excited for the updated center, but still saddened by the loss of the first site.

“Our overall losses were significant,” Lewis said, estimating about $1 million in damages from the early-morning fire. “We also lost research time.”

At about 2 a.m. on Jan. 29, firefighters from Columbia and Walla Walla counties began responding to the blaze at 606 Wagon Road. Although crews including up to 40 firefighters stopped the fire from spreading, it still was considered a total loss, Lewis said.

Columbia County Assessor Chris Mills said the 3.2-acre property decreased by $70,510 in value from $390,190 to $319,680, but the main plant area that caught fire was about half destroyed.

Clint Atteberry, Columbia County’s fire marshal, said the cause was undetermined, but the fire likely started in the east wall, with more than 50 percent damage to the main building. He added the investigation was finished on March 18 with Walla Walla Fire Department’s help.

“It’s anti-climatic, but some of them are just that way,” Atteberry said of the investigation.

Meanwhile, Lewis said he has continued paying the eight workers employed at the time of the fire and will begin hiring more around mid-May, when he hopes to begin operations again. He said customers have been asking for product, but he hasn’t been able to provide. One of those included Geneva Energy, he said.

Lewis said insurance has helped cover most of his losses, but he still has had to cough up unexpected money.

At least, he said, the fire caused him to construct a newer building, which will be safer.

“It will be much better than the old one,” Lewis said, adding he plans to meet with local fire departments to form a safety plan as completion nears.

Emily Thornton can be reached at emilythornton@wwub.com or 509-526-8325.

Emily Thornton covers courts and emergency services, as well as other various stories. She has been in the newspaper industry off and on since roughly 1999 and lived primarily on the West Coast, but also Florida and Europe.

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