By Jim Davis The Herald Business Journal
DARRINGTON — The largest employer in Darrington hopes to avoid shutting down, but may be forced to do so temporarily after the Oso landslide blocked Highway 530.
The Hampton sawmill in Darrington trucks in logs and ships out finished lumber, wood chips and sawdust, said CEO Steve Zika.
The closure of the highway will cost the company about a half million dollars a month in added fuel costs and to pay for more truck drivers.
“There’s a chance that if lumber prices keep dropping that we could take some downtime,” Zika said. “We’re hoping to avoid that.”
With the lumber market already soft after a harsh U.S. winter, the loss of $500,000 a month would be tough for the company to bear.
“We are operating today and some last week,” Zika said. “I hope we will continue. So far, we’re getting by. It’s kind of day to day.”
Gov. Jay Inslee said the future of the sawmill was in jeopardy in a letter sent Monday to President Barack Obama asking for federal aid.
The sawmill employs 130 people in Darrington. With loggers and other people whose livelihoods depend on the sawmill, the operation accounts for more than 300 jobs in the community.
Inslee wrote about the sawmill under a section of his letter called “Damages and Community Impact.” He said Highway 530 remains shut down indefinitely from milepost 36 to milepost 39.
With the highway closed, residents and businesses such as Hampton have to detour through Skagit County, which adds up to two hours each way.
“Even a small change in overhead from this four-hour detour, such as increased fuel costs and driver salaries, could drive up costs for (the company’s) products making them noncompetitive in the marketplace and eventually jeopardizing its 300 plus jobs in Darrington,” Inslee wrote in the letter.
Hampton Affiliates, based in Portland, Ore., has operations throughout Oregon, Washington and Canada. It has owned the former Summit Timber mill in Darrington since 2002.
Zika recalled all the times that he’s driven the highway to get to Darrington. He said he’s still stunned about the devastation from the landslide.
“When we’re still looking for victims, the last thing that we want to do is worry about when the road is going to open up for business,” Zika said.
No one who works for Hampton died in the landslide, but one of his employees lost a house, Zika said.
“Fortunately for him and his family, they were out of the house at the time,” Zika said. “They came back and the house was gone.”
At least one former employee, Summer Raffo, 36, died in the mudslide. She was a lumber stacker for Summit and Hampton.
“We had several employees who lost relatives,” Zika said. “It’s such a small community, everybody knows everybody.”
About a quarter of the workers are facing longer commutes just to get to work. The wood products business is always dangerous at the best of times. He said they’re trying to re-emphasize safety now, knowing that people may be distracted with the news.
The company has donated money for the relief effort. Employees throughout his company have joined the effort.
“That makes me feel good about the company we work for,” he said.
The logistical issues that Hampton faces are tough. There is no rail line to Darrington so everything needs to be shipped by truck.
They had to be creative to scramble to add truck drivers after the highway shut down.
“It’s a fairly remote region,” Zika said. “To be on the road that period of time, it’s tough.”
Paying for the added drivers and the added fuel costs will be challenging. And the mill doesn’t have much space to store finished lumber.
“I think people should be optimistic that we’re going to run that operation up there,” Zika said. “Short term, we’re going to have some problems, but long term we’re optimistic with a good team and crew that the mill will be around for a long time.”
Darrington has economic problems other than the sawmill, Inslee wrote in his letter to Obama. In recent years, the community has attempted to reinvent itself as an outdoor wilderness destination. With the highway closed, tourists from Everett and Seattle are unlikely to take the longer, northern route into town.
“With the road closed and emergency work continuing into tourist season, the economic impacts to this industry could be devastating,” Inslee said in the letter.