Deputies: 4-alarm fire breaks out at Lawtey lumber yard

Co-owner John Tatum estimates the fire caused $1-3 million in damage

LAWTEY, Fla. – A four-alarm fire broke out at a Lawtey lumber yard Monday afternoon, torching a saw mill on the property, authorities said.

The fire started about noon at Tatum Brothers Lumber Company, located on Northwest County Road 200A near Northwest 216th Street, co-owner John Tatum told a News4Jax reporter.

He said it looks like a high-pressure air compressor caught fire. Several employees were nearby doing maintenance at the time. They tried to put out the flames, but things got out of hand.

"They went over there to try to extinguish it and they cut it. Evidently, it got hot real quick and from that it spread because of all the sawdust and rosin from being a pine saw mill," said Tatum.

The fire raged on for two hours until firefighters from several different agencies, including Clay County Fire Rescue and the Lawtey fire department, were able to bring the flames under control.

Fortunately, no one was hurt.

"That's a blessing there, nobody got hurt," said longtime employee Eric Thompson, who was greasing some equipment when he noticed the smoke and tried to help.

"It was already too far gone," he said. "Blew up a little bit and before I knew it, it was just blazing."

Tatum said the company was able to salvage some equipment from the mill, but appears the saw mill appears to be a total loss.

He estimated the flames inflicted at least $1 million in damage. None of that is coverage by insurance, he added, because it's nearly impossible to insure a saw mill.

The cleanup effort required is expected to keep the company's 60 employees busy for several weeks, Tatum said.

While there is no official word yet on the cause, the Tatum family said in a statement that they suspect a mechanical issue is to blame:

Today around 12:00 p.m. a mechanical fire started at Tatum Brothers Lumber Company. First and most importantly, by the grace of God, nobody was injured during this catastrophic event. We also would like to express our sincere and heartfelt thanks to all of the first responders who were on the scene immediately and extinguished the fire promptly.

At this time we are evaluating the full extent of the damage but upon first impression it appears as if the sawmill is a total loss. We thank all of those who have expressed concern and sympathy and have reached out to offer prayers and assistance. At this time, the family asks for privacy as we try to process this catastrophic loss to our family business of over fifty years.