Colby College’s biomass plant primarily burns local forest products to heat buildings and water on campus.
Firefighters from Waterville and surrounding towns responded to a fire at Colby College's steam plant on Wednesday morning. Credit: Courtesy of the Waterville Fire Department

WATERVILLE, Maine — A fire started inside Colby College’s biomass-fueled steam plant early Wednesday, damaging the building.

Waterville firefighters arrived at the steam plant, which had smoke coming from the building, after a report of a fire alarm activation came into the department at 3:29 a.m. Wednesday.

Inside the plant, crews from Waterville’s department and surrounding towns discovered a conveyor belt carrying biomass wood chips that had caught fire.

There were no injuries or deaths and the college is evaluating the extent of damage to the building, fire department officials said.

Colby College’s steam plant primarily burns local forest products to heat buildings and water on campus, though oil is used as an alternative option and to augment biomass during cold winter temperatures, according to its website. Boiler operators oversee the plant 24 hours a day seven days a week, and a natural gas boiler system serves as a backup, so heat will not be disrupted on campus, the fire department said.

John Gromek, battalion chief for the Waterville Fire Department, confirmed the commercial building fire and location Wednesday morning, though details didn’t become available until the afternoon.

“Visibility because of heavy smoke and the fact that the conveyors spanned three levels created some suppression challenges,” according to the department.

Fire alarm and sprinkler system activation and safety protocols that plant staff followed contributed to a quick knockdown and minimized damage to the facility, they said. Roof hatches designed to ventilate the building also helped with visibility.

Officials from the department and Office of Maine State Fire Marshal consider the fire to be accidental. They suspect that smoldering wood ash, a byproduct found at biomass plants, ignited the wood chips on the conveyor belt.

Thirty-five firefighters from Waterville, Winslow, Oakland, Fairfield and Skowhegan helped extinguish the fire, and some left to assist with a chimney fire on Marston Road in Waterville just before 7:30 a.m.