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This isn’t your ‘run of the mill’ lumber mill

DARRINGTON, Wash. -- If you ever go into a Home Depot or Lowe's around the Puget Sound, there’s a good chance those stacks of lumber come from a mill in Darrington.

The lumber mill, now owned by Hampton Lumber, has been around for generations. As the largest employer in Darrington, it's the heartbeat of the local economy.

"This place is big for this town," Andrew Dichesare said. "It keeps this place alive."

Dichesare, a millwright, is one of about 170 people who work there.

Asked what it means to be a millwright? "It means I'm Superman," he said with a laugh. "If things break, people call us and we fix them. We kind of save the day."

Three-fourths of the employees live in the Darrington community.

"This mill has been a part of my life for 29 years," Cory Kuntz said.

Kuntz, who worked his way up to log yard supervisor, is a third-generation mill worker. His father and grandfather worked here before him.

"You always thought there was something bigger and better until you find yourself here and working alongside your friends, and working in a company that actually cares for you," he said.

For Kuntz, that was never more true than five years ago when the Oso landslide changed his life forever.

"It was a surreal time, slow motion, almost," Kuntz said. "My aunt lost her life, and I lost all of my possessions and home."

During his and Oso’s darkest hours, the coworkers he had worked side by side with at the mill for decades were right next to him at the slide -- day after day -- searching for survivors and digging up remains.

"There is a special bond of the people that went down there and helped with the recovery," he said. "We’ve seen a lot of things that you just can’t unsee.

"We used to get together and talk about it and, in a sense, help heal, as we talked and sometimes laughed until we cried type of thing."

Kuntz said for him, the mill is more than just a place to work. The bond is obvious to Hampton’s plant manager, Tim Johnson.

"They’re really tight," Johnson said. "They want to do a good job; they want this place to succeed."

Asked what he's most proud of at the Darrington facility: "That we're still here running."

Since the recession, several mills have shut down across the region. Still, Hampton is sawing away, in part because they figured out how to turn their waste into profit.

In Darrington, they take the facility's waste -- all of the sawdust, chips and bark -- and turn it into biomass.

Instead of using sometimes costly diesel boilers to make steam to dry the lumber, they burn the free biomass instead to make steam.

They convert any excess energy to power, which the company then sells back to the energy grid, contributing to the bottom line.

The rest goes into a precipitator. The ash separates, falling down into containers that get trucked off to become topsoil. What's left goes out the exhaust. Johnson said it's as 'green' as they can get it.

The Co-Gen, as it's called, makes Hampton self sufficient.

Using the latest sawmill technology makes each log more profitable. Inside the facility, scanners and lasers measure how much lumber they can squeeze out of one log. By rotating large logs just the right amount, they can maximize the output.

The curve saw, Johnson boasts, is "really cool technology." Trees don't grow straight and curve saws follow growth patterns to minimize waste. That's the goal of each upgrade.

Even on this sprawling 360-acre facility, less means more: More lumber, more jobs and more economic stability in Darrington.

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