The economic impact that the fire at Georgia-Pacific has wrought is yet unknown.
“It is a huge economic impact,” said McDuffie County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton. “There is the loss of the operation and loss of jobs for a period of time. There is a loss to the property tax digest,” he said.
According to Tax Commissioner Stacy Thomas, Georgia Pacific paid $190,657.01 in personal and real property taxes in 2018.
“This is roughly what the county will lose in 2020 property taxes based on the 2018 tax dollars,” she said. “The current 2019 values are not available.”
The May 29 fire at the particle board facility began around 2 p.m. in the raw material storage shed, then quickly spread and built up so fast that the fire suppression system was unable to contain it, said company spokesperson Rick Kimble.
The cause of the fire that damaged nearly 80 percent of the facility at 1241 Harrison Road in Thomson is unknown and the job status of the 95 employees who work there is also unknown at this time, Kimble said. There were 20 to 25 employees working at the time of the fire. They were evacuated, and no one was injured.
“We do not know what the future holds. We cannot do an assessment until we can get in there, which will be a few days,” Kimble said.
Kimble said some employees have been given assignments of helping monitor the situation and others are receiving assignments from their supervisors. “We do not know what is going to happen moving forward.”
Riley Stamey, chairman of the Thomson-McDuffie Development Authority, defined the fire, loss of operations and jobs as tragic. “Anytime you have a tragedy such as this, we do not know the types of loss. It is such a tragic situation that we are dealing with now and will be in the days to come.”
“Right now, it would be premature to speculate about economics because I do not know the extent of the damage,” he said. “You cannot measure until it is put out and officials can assess the damage and decide what the future is going to be.”
Georgia-Pacific is one of the world's leading makers of tissue, pulp, paper, packaging, building products, and related chemicals. Georgia-Pacific established itself in Thomson in July 2014 after purchasing the International Paper facility, which had assumed Temple-Inland in 2012. The former Temple-Inland began operation in 1974.
“The local community has worked with the company since the beginning. Once it determines the extent of the damage and makes a decision on the future, the Development Authority, the city and the county will participate in trying to help them rebuild,” Stamey said.
Georgia-Pacific Corp. opened a new, $135 million softwood lumber production facility in Warren County earlier this year. The 340,000-square-foot facility is next to its existing lumber mill on U.S. Highway 278.
While Kimble cannot speculate on the employment of the affected employees, he said they are able to apply to other Georgia Pacific facilities. “The advantage of having such a large company is having several facilities across the country,” he said.
Georgia-Pacific’s Thomson facility was a 24-hour operation and its diverse workforce came from McDuffie, Glascock, Hancock, Warren, Columbia and Taliaferro counties.
The width, strength, and severity of the fire had McDuffie County and Thomson Fire departments calling for assistance and mutual aid from numerous surrounding cities and towns.
“The fire is currently contained to the site. Firefighters will continue to be on site for the near term to address limited areas that continue to burn,” said McDuffie County Manager David Crawley.
The fire departments made the decision to let the fire continue to burn itself out at the facility because of water shortage in the local water system.
According to McDuffie County Fire Chief Stephen Sewell, pumpers and tankers from surrounding stations brought water to douse the fire, and water was pumped from local ponds to provide water sources. Georgia Forestry cut a break around the plant to ensure containment.
Thomson-McDuffie County jointly owns the municipal water system, and a water-sewer commission establishes policy and guidelines. The City of Thomson is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the system.
City Administrator Don Powers clarified the reports that the fire departments were allowing to the fire to burn out because the system ran out of water. “We did not run out of water,” he said.
According to Powers, under optimum conditions, the capacity of the Thomson-McDuffie water system is not large enough to indefinitely supply the water required to control a fire of the size and intensity of the Georgia Pacific fire.
“Site conditions, not controlled by the water department, could have also played a role. Had that water ‘drain’ continued, the entire water system would probably have lost its operating pressure, causing all sorts of problems in the days ahead with water availability and water quality issues for all of the Thomson/McDuffie water users,” he said.
“It appears that what is burning now is a large pile of sawdust,” said County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton who is acting as public information officer.
“We are going to have to study how it gets put out,” he said. “It is just a huge mess of burning material.”
Newton said the fire does not pose a danger to homes and other property near the facility. “We are determining what to do about the pile of burning materials.”
“McDuffie County and the City of Thomson Fire Departments would like to thank our neighboring communities for support and resources provided to address the fire. Additionally, we would like to thank the local community for their support during this event,” Crawley said.