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Thousands of cubic feet of sawdust caught fire and smoldered for hours Saturday in a silo at a large lumber mill in Ellicottville.

About 70 firefighters from the Ellicottville, Great Valley and West Valley fire companies responded soon after a fire alarm went off about 5:15 a.m. in the metal silo adjacent to Plant No. 3 of Fitzpatrick & Weller Inc., a Maple Avenue company that produces lumber and wood products.

To put the fire out, firefighters hosed the sawdust as it was emptied from the silo, making sure the adjacent plant was not damaged.

"It took almost 11 hours to hose it all out of there," said Ellicottville Fire Chief Harold Morton.

A company official estimated the silo held 21,000 cubic feet of sawdust, which is produced in the plant's operation and burned to heat the plant and provide humidity that keeps wood products from warping.

"It's an 80-foot-tall silo, and they had to remove all the sawdust to get the fire out," said Dana Fitzpatrick, company vice president. "Using hoses from the side and hoses from the top, they were able to get the stuff pretty much out."

"Sawdust just keeps simmering and burning, and it's very difficult to get the fire out, especially when it's in a silo like that," Fitzpatrick explained. "We're still not sure how it caught on fire."

"There were sparks in there," an Ellicottville firefighter said. "You can't even see the flames. It's just hot."

No damage estimate was made Saturday. Morton said one firefighter suffered a minor injury when he slipped off a platform.

Maintenance supervisor Daniel Fitzpatrick said that if the mechanical unloader used to empty the silo were heavily damaged, the cost of repair could run as high as $25,000.

Workers in Plant No. 3 mold and shape wood into kitchen cabinet doors, bedposts and other household items, plant officials said.

Daniel Fitzpatrick said the plant would probably reopen by Wednesday.

Fitzpatrick & Weller employs about 250 people. In 1989, the company exported nearly half of its $16 million in sales of cut lumber and wood products.

Western New York hardwoods are shipped by the firm to customers in Europe and Asia and made into furniture, musical instruments and other merchandise.

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