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Fire Disrupts West Lebanon Plant

Flames in Ventilation Force Evacuation

Lebnon firefighters spray water on filter elements that caught fire at Thermal Dynamics in West Lebanon, N.H., on January 25, 2013. The building was evacuated while Lebanon, Hartford and Hanover fire departments responded to put it out. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

Lebnon firefighters spray water on filter elements that caught fire at Thermal Dynamics in West Lebanon, N.H., on January 25, 2013. The building was evacuated while Lebanon, Hartford and Hanover fire departments responded to put it out. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

West Lebanon — About 75 people were evacuated from the Thermal Dynamics building yesterday when a fire started in a ventilation system, allowing some of them to enjoy an extended lunch break, while others sat in their cars.

When firefighters from Lebanon, Hartford, and Hanover arrived on scene just past 11:30 a.m., smoke was billowing from a vent in the back of the building. The fire crews began pulling out long, circular filters elements — still ablaze — and tossing them on a nearby snow bank to smoulder.

The building sustained only smoke damage, Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos said. He did not know the cause, but said it wasn’t suspicious and wouldn’t be investigated further.

The vent was used as an exhaust for equipment involved in metal finishing or chipping, Christopoulos said. He theorized the fire could have been ignited by a hot metal chip that entered the vent or oil that could have leaked into the duct.

“There’s really no way for us to determine,” Christopoulos said.

There were still employees in the Benning Street building when fire crews arrived, Christopoulos said, but there were no reported injuries. The building, which has a gray steel exterior and metal roof, was built in 1965.

Thermal Dynamics, a unit of St. Louis-based Victor Technologies, makes plasma cutting and welding equipment. The West Lebanon plant is a much smaller operation than it used to be: The company cut and relocated 100 jobs in 2011, which followed 50 layoffs in 2009.

Since the fire was at the back of the building, firefighters had to snake a yellow hose around its side so they could tap a water supply from a fire hydrant in front. At noon, firefighters were battling the fire in 10 degree weather and as water fell to the ground, it froze into small patches of ice on the asphalt that caused several firefighters and employees to slip.

For more than an hour, firefighters stood on a red ladder and leaned into the vent, pulling out long metal filters that had been charred brown by the fire. Often, the filters were still in flames when they were pulled out, and a firefighter from atop the ladder would drop the hot filter on the ground and let another firefighter douse the flames with a hose.

The pile of burned filters on the ground stained the snow brown and when one reignited, a firefighter placed a bit of snow on the fire to smother it. After four filters had been removed from the vent, one firefighter lifted a hose into the vent and sprayed the remaining filters inside before removing them.

As firefighters sprayed the vent, a nearby group of 10 employees stood together and watched.

Most employees declined to comment, including emergency coordinator Paul Page, who would only say that there were about 75 employees at Thermal Dynamics.

At 1 p.m., a firefighter told the group that they could go back into the building, but he instructed that anyone who is sensitive to smoke should probably stay outside due to the smoky interior.

On that cue, Page and the group of 10 walked to the front of the building. Page opened the front door and yelled, “Break’s over,” and employees began to step out of their cars and return inside.

A short while later, firefighters began to clean up the mess. Someone had bought three boxes of donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts and firefighters held steaming cups of coffee.

One of the doors in the back of the building was left open, and inside there was a forklift, numerous boxes and a yellow sign hanging from the ceiling that read, “Practice safety. Depend on you.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.