ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
One day after fire destroyed his state-of-the-art woodworking shop in Durham, Brian McMillen was already talking about the future.
The fire, which is believed to have started shortly after midnight on Thursday morning, left owner McMillen and his four coworkers at Sure-Wood Specialties Inc. without any tools to make their popular custom cabinets and other wood products.
“I didn’t have a tape measure-I had to borrow one,” McMillen said. “I felt a little naked.”
By Friday morning, McMillen already had a plan to rebuild the business.
“I expect in three weeks to be back up and running,” he said.
New tools and equipment will be ordered and, thanks to a fortuitous purchase a few months earlier, McMillen already has a building on the same site to use as a temporary shop.
The fire is believed to have started shortly after midnight in a trash bin filled with sawdust and trash that stood right outside the steel building.
McMillen, who was awakened at his home at 2:08 a.m. with news of the fire, believes the fire was set by a person or persons. But he said the state fire marshall and the insurance adjuster did not find enough evidence of arson to initiate an in-depth investigation.
The official cause was ruled “inconclusive.”
McMillen’s suspicions stem in part from his observations of the trash bin as well as the extreme precautions he and his employees take to avoid fire.
“We’ve always known that fire was the biggest hazard for this shop,” he said.
McMillen said considering how far the materials in the bin had burned down in the allotted time, it would be reasonable to conclude the fire had been burning in the bin for quite some time.
Beyond that, McMillen said he and his employees have made a habit of shutting off the electrical current to the building after every day’s work to avoid the possibility of an inadvertent spark inside.
“That’s just a habit we do every day,” he said. “Not even the office computers have electrical current at night.”
McMillen said fire likely entered the building through the exhaust tubing running out to the trash bin. The fire likely smoldered for quite sometime within the tightly sealed building until the intense heat finally caved in the roof and flames erupted.
“It was so hot inside that building, that it melted an aluminum compressor down to the steel crank shaft,” he said.
Contrary to some rumors, there was no explosion, he added.
Volunteer fire crews from Durham, Tampa and Hillsboro responded to the blaze, but McMillen said the building was too far gone to try to save it or its contents.
Ben Steketee, Hillsboro fire chief, said fire crews focused on keeping the blaze from spreading to the former brick grade school adjacent to the workshop, and on keeping a nearby propane tank from exploding from the heat.
McMillen said the building and equipment was insured, but not at replacement value. He estimated his investment in the business over the past 10 years at $250,000.
“That represents 10 years of hard work…and 10 years of everything,” he said. “But I’m stubborn enough to start over.
With a building to move into temporarily and a backlog of about six months of work, McMillen said he is optimistic he can keep his four coworkers with him. He said they will help build a new permanent shop near the former one.