Fire crews responded early Wednesday to a fire at the Biomass Heating and Cogeneration Plant on the campus of Colby College in Waterville. Photo courtesy of Waterville Fire Department

WATERVILLE — Firefighters responded early Wednesday to a fire at a biomass plant on the Colby College campus that is believed to have started when smoldering wood ash ignited wood chips on a conveyor belt, authorities said.

The biomass facility primarily burns local forest products to heat the college’s buildings and water, with oil used as a backup, a Colby spokesman said.

Waterville fire Chief Shawn Esler said in a statement that firefighters went to the plant at 3:29 a.m. Wednesday for a fire alarm activation, saw smoke pouring from the building and requested assistance. Fairfield, Oakland and Skowhegan firefighters also responded to the scene.

A part of the Biomass Heating and Cogeneration Plant at Colby College is shown Wednesday in Waterville. The plant was damaged in the early morning hours when authorities believe smoldering wood ash ignited wood chips on a conveyor belt. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“Crews entered the building and located a conveyor belt carrying biomass wood chips had caught fire,” Esler said. “Visibility because of heavy smoke and the fact that the conveyors spanned three levels created some suppression challenges.”

Esler said the fire alarm and sprinkler system activations, safety protocols followed by Colby’s physical plant staff, and a calculated fire attack contributed to a quick knockdown that ultimately minimized damage to the facility.

Also, roof hatches and a fire protection feature designed to ventilate the building operated as designed, he said. The biomass plant is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week by boiler operators and has a redundant natural gas boiler backup system so heat will not be disrupted to the campus, he said.


No one was injured in the fire, according to Esler.

“There is damage to the biomass facility which is currently being evaluated by Colby staff,” he said.

The Office of State Fire Marshal is assisting in the investigation and the cause of the fire is considered accidental.

Esler thanked Colby employees and fire personnel in surrounding communities for their assistance.

The biomass plant is located on Campus Drive, adjacent to the Harold Alfond Athletics complex.

Built for $11.25 million, the plant started operating in 2012, with officials expecting it would save the college about $1.5 million a year in heating costs.

The 8,100-square-foot plant burns forestry products, including wood chips, bark, branches and treetops, producing steam that is distributed underground to all parts of the campus.

Two huge 400-horsepower boilers inside the plant produce steam used not only for heat, but also for hot water, cooking and cogeneration of electricity on campus. At its launch, the plant replaced 90% of the 1.1 million gallons of heating oil Colby used yearly.

Construction began on the plant in fall 2010. Colby was awarded a $750,000 grant from Efficiency Maine as part of a competitive grants program for large greenhouse gas reduction projects.

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