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Efforts continue to determine the cause of massive Cheboygan fire

Firefighters respond to a fire at the Tissue Depot in Cheboygan on Sept. 13, 2023. (Photo: Courtesy of the City of Cheboygan)
City of Cheboygan
Firefighters respond to a fire at the Tissue Depot in Cheboygan on Sept. 13, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the City of Cheboygan)

When Phill Jankoviak came out of the Walmart located about a mile south of downtown Cheboygan, he noticed people around the parking lot looking north.

“I look over and I’m like ‘Holy cow.’ There was this angry, black smoke in the sky,” Jankoviak said.

He’s lived in Cheboygan nearly 67 years but Jankoviak said he can’t remember seeing a smoke plume that large before.

The Tissue Depot, a historic paper mill often regarded as the southern gateway into the downtown area, caught fire on Sept. 13, at around 11:30 a.m.

The western warehouse, located across the street from the main facility on the Cheboygan River, burned down after firefighters fought the flames for nearly a whole day.

No one was injured.

But as firefighters doused the building with thousands of gallons of water, particulates and debris were released into the air and water.

Authorities issued a temporary one-mile shelter in place advisory that afternoon and local schools canceled their classes for Sept. 14. The order impacted residents, businesses and the nearby McLaren hospital which had to shut down its air exchange system in order to keep contaminants out of the building.

Responding agencies had to collect the firefighting water in tanks, block off storm drains and place barriers in the river to keep debris from drifting away.

Cheboygan Fire Chief Don Dailey told 9&10 News his department had to return to the rubble multiple times throughout the week to put out flare ups and hot spots.

State and federal investigators, including from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, have been looking into the fire, but as of Friday, the cause is undetermined.

Tracy Morris, a spokesperson for the ATF’s Detroit bureau, said certified fire investigators are examining the scene to determine if there is any arson-related evidence.

“It’s such an extensive fire that it may be a long time before [a cause is determined],” Morris said. “It was a huge building so there’s quite a bit to inspect.”

An update on Friday from the City of Cheboygan said those efforts could continue to the later part of next week. Insurance officials are also involved in the investigation.


Officials from the state Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were called in to oversee cleanup efforts.

EGLE spokesman Jeff Johnston said last week the U.S. Coast Guard monitored Lake Huron for any debris.

“[Responding agencies] have got vacuum trucks that will actually suck that up off the water and pooled water that's around the fire site," Johnston said. "At this point, there's about 20,000 gallons of firefighting water that's going to be collected.”

The remaining standing structure was evaluated by the city's civil engineer. Only the south wall and parts of the east and west walls were deemed structurally sound.

The storage building, and the iconic conveyor bridge over Main Street were deemed unstable and will need to be taken down. Until that time, Main Street is closed to pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

The EPA is getting bids from demolition companies to remove the overhead conveyor system and the demolition and cleanup of the warehouse site.

EPA site manager Corey Peaslee said his team ran multiple tests on the rubble. They specifically focused on coal ash piles that were being stored in the building that show levels of arsenic above the EPA’s removal management levels.

Asbestos did not escape into the surrounding area. It’s mainly stored in the conveyor bridge over Main Street which was not touched by the blaze, according to Peaslee.

He said there’s no exact timeline on when the compromised structures will be removed or how long the EPA will be fronting cleanup efforts.

“We will be involved as long as there is a threat to human health or the environment out there,” Peaslee said.


The Tissue Depot, formerly known as the Great Lakes Tissue Co. was owned by Procter & Gamble throughout much of the 20th century and made paper products like Pampers diapers. At one point, it employed over 300 people.

In 1990, P&G sold the facility and took much of the workforce with it. Many mill workers moved to places like New Jersey, Cincinnati, and Green Bay.

Ownership of the mill has changed hands multiple times since the P&G era.

The most recent owners, a new investment group called Patriot Advanced Environmental Technologies, finalized the purchase of the tissue manufacturing facility, all associated operations, properties and an adjacent warehouse building in January.

Earlier this year, a federal judge ordered the company to shut down its equipment as a legal battle plays out. The collective is facing a lawsuit for allegedly neglecting payments on leased equipment.

According to Cheboygan County Sheriff Tim Cook, there have been several fires at the factory in the past. The most recent of these fires was in 2021, when the north end of the main factory caught fire.

In November of last year, the roof at the north end of the building collapsed due to weather conditions, leaving a portion of the north facing wall open to the elements.

Jankoviak said the facility has long been an eyesore for the community. The Sept. 13 fire has only made it worse.

“They're just trying to run the business and produce stuff and create jobs for Cheboygan. But they're struggling, just like any other company,” Jankoviak said. “I think it's gonna be a big vacant lot when they get done with it.”

IPR attempted to contact the Tissue Depot but its voicemail and website were not operational.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.