MARBLE - The future of the Allegheny Wood Products sawmill in Marble depends on two factors - the recovery of the American hardwoods market and the insurance settlement following the Jan. 4 fire that devastated the facility.

John Crites, president of Allegheny Wood Products, Feb. 3 said a state police fire marshal was unable to determine the cause of the blaze that caused an estimated $3 million in damages at the facility.

"This is the first major loss we have experienced," said Crites. "We are waiting to hear from the insurance investigators before we can begin to plan for the future."

Crites said AWP might not know what the insurance settlement will be for several months.

The hardwoods industry has been depressed since the trade war with China began, and Crites said up to 60 percent of AWP's total sales were with China. He said the Chinese use cherry and red oak for their home markets.

"They build large cement high rise buildings and the people decorate them," Crites said. "They like our American hardwoods."

Crites said the domestic market has turned from hardwoods to composites.

"The designers are calling for pressed materials or plastics," he said. "This has been some of the toughest times we have ever seen in the industry," he added.

Still, Crites is hopeful about the future.

"Hardwoods were added to the Phase 1 China deal and that would certainly help," he said. "If the Chinese revoke the tariffs it would be effective immediately. Our products that are being shipped would suddenly gain five percent in value."

The downturn in the hardwood market forced AWP to reduce its Marble workforce prior to the fire.

Since the fire, all 87 employees have been laid off.

Crites praised the employees and local emergency services personnel who responded to the call.

"They were fantastic," he said.

Crites recalled one log truck driver who pulled in at the fire site and dropped off his gear.

"He just told us to go ahead and use it," Crites said.

He also thanked the people who brought meals and beverages to the firefighters.

"I don't think there was an egg McMuffin left in Clarion County," he said.

"The fire was so intense that steel girders melted," Crites said. "This kind of damage isn't going to be replaced quickly. This is going to take a long time."

Clarion County Commissioner Ed Heasley recently said "Clarion County recently saw a loss to our region" with the AWP fire.

"We hope Allegheny Wood Products will rebuild, and other local industries will flourish in future business," Heasley said.

Allegheny Wood Products operates 14 sawmill and dry-kiln facilities in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.