Russell mill destroyed in massive fire was to be developed into cannabis facility

RUSSELL - Pittsfield businessman Jacob Trudeau purchased the long-vacant Strathmore Mill building in the hopes of opening a cannabis facility there, but on Friday his dream went up in smoke.

Strathmore Mill Number 2 was destroyed in a massive fire that drew 125 firefighters from across the region to assist. Two days later the wreckage of the mill building continues to smolder and small fires could be seen shooting up through the remains of the factory.

"We were in the very early stages of putting a cannabis facility there," Trudeau said. "We spent a lot of money cleaning it out. The part that burned was the part we had mostly cleaned."

Trudeau purchased the 233,000 square-foot complex for £15,000 at auction in May, 2019.

At the time the real estate developer said he was not certain what he was going to do with the building but was certain it had a purpose.

"It was a really great building. It is historic and it is a really great space," Trudeau said on Sunday. "I'm hoping to be able to save some of it but I'm pretty sure there is structural damage."

The fire broke out at the mill on 34 Valley View Ave. at about 8:30 p.m. It took firefighters more than six hours to get the massive blaze under control, Russell Fire Chief Niles LaValley said.

"There are some burning rolls of paper that are deep-seated that will probably be burning for weeks," LaValley said.

The fire remains under investigation by the Russell Fire and Police departments and the State Police assigned to the Office of the State Fire Marshal, but a preliminary examination determined the cause is suspicious, said Jennifer Mieth, fire department spokeswoman.

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The Fire Marshal's Office is offering a £5,000 reward for information that helps identify the person or people who set the fire. People with tips can call the Arson Hotline at 800-682-9229, she said.

When he purchased the building, Trudeau said it was full of paper rolls and other material left from the days when Strathmore was operating. A recycling company used the factory later, so it was also filled with trash leftover from that operation.

Once the wreckage stops smoldering Trudeau said he will see what can be salvaged and what it will cost to take down the remains of the part of the mill that was destroyed.

He still hopes to redevelop the property.

"The building was uninsured. It will be difficult to find a path forward," he said.

Two days after the Strathmore Mill Number 2 was destroyed in a massive fire in Russell, the remains continue to smolder. (Jeanette DeForge/Republican staff)

He said he wants to thank the firefighters, police and others for their efforts to extinguish the fire at the building.

When firefighters arrived the building was already engulfed so they had to battle the flames mostly from the exterior. Fighting the fire was made that much more difficult because of the heat, the limited water supply and the fact the mill can only be reached by a one-lane bridge, LaValley said.

The fire was in the part of the building that was mostly wood structure with steel I-beams.

After about six hours most of the building collapsed into a basement and sub-basement, LaValley said.

Westover Air Reserve Base Fire Department assisted with an air crash truck that helped extinguish some of the debris that had pancaked into the sub-basement, but fires continue to break out in massive rolls of paper that were used on printing presses scattered throughout the building that cannot be reached safely by firefighters, LaValley said.

The small fires have no place to spread to so firefighters will continue a watch of the building for as long as it is necessary to ensure there are no problems with the smoldering remains, he said.

Firefighters from as far away as Egremont and Ware responded to assist the 20 part-time and on-call firefighters from the Russell Department. Firefighters continued to pour water on the structure on Saturday afternoon, nearly 20 hours after the blaze was first reported, LaValley said.

Three regional fire task forces from Berkshire and Hampshire counties as well as Hampden county departments responded with multiple pieces of equipment to assist. Other departments also responded separately through mutual aid agreements, he said.

The Palmer and Ware area task force also took over the building watch on Saturday so Russell firefighters, who had been on the scene for more than 24 hours, could get some sleep, he said.

"Heat was an issue," he said.

The firefighters working during a heatwave and the fire was so large the heat from it could be felt for a distance.

State officials provided a rehabilitation truck that gave working firefighters a reprieve from the heat and a chance to rehydrate. Emergency personnel from the Hilltown Ambulance were also invaluable at the scene because they spent the night ensuring firefighters were hydrated and checking their vital signs so no one was fell ill, he said.

Getting water to the fire was also a challenge. The hydrant system is outdated and ran out of water within two hours.

Firefighters were not able to pump water from the nearby Westfield River because the banks are so steep and there was no way to access it, so firefighters filled tank trucks at hydrants in nearby Westfield and ferried the water back to the fire scene.

Firefighters were also hampered by the bridge. Weight restrictions meant aerial fire trucks could not be brought in to direct water streams from above, he said.

Most Fire Departments have contingency plans in place in case large buildings catch fire so LaValley said his firefighters knew the challenges they would face with the water supply and bridge before Friday night.

Firefighters were all wearing oxygen masks at the fire so concerns about spreading COVID-19 were minimal, LaValley said.

An additional concern was hazardous materials in the building. LaValley said they knew there was a lot of asbestos in the mill and they expected there were other chemicals as well that were left from the paper operation.

State hazardous materials experts and the Environmental Protection Agency monitored air quality during the blaze.

The state Department of Environmental Protection also monitored the water runoff to ensure it did not pollute the nearby river, he said.

Trudeau said he has visited the mill at least twice since the fire started and is disappointed that a smoldering pile of rubble is all that is left to much of the building.

"I really wanted to make something out of it," he said.

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