Whether by luck or merely the astute observations of a company employee, a Schellville pallet manufacturer dodged a major catastrophe early Thursday when fire broke out in a heat treatment box in the middle of a yard piled with wooden pallets.

The 5:27 a.m. blaze sent flames shooting skyward from the propane-fueled, 53-foot metal box at Sonoma Pacific Co. where pallets intended for overseas shipment are heated to ensure they are free of pests, materials manager Jim Vallandingham said.

Fire also began spreading to 45-foot stacks of pallets stored next to the drying box, Schell-Vista Fire Chief Ray Mulas said.

?We have a million pallets around here, so we?re just lucky - very lucky - that this whole place," Vallandingham said, his voice trailing off. ?We?ve got eight acres here. It could have just ignited. It?s just millions of pallets.?

The company yard is located on Fremont Drive near the juncture of Highways 12, 121 and Broadway, where the Schell-Vista Fire station stands, ?across the street, basically,? Mulas said.

But tall stacks of tightly stored pallets made access to the fire a challenge, requiring lots of moving and shifting of semi trailers and materials in order for engines and water tenders to get in.

Mulas likened the setting to a forest filled with dried fuel, ready to light off at the first spark.

?This is our Yellowstone, but we caught it,? Mulas said. ?We got there, we hit it hard ? kind of blitz attacked it ? and held it in check.?

?If the wind was blowing,? he added, ?we would have had three to four acres of pallets at 20-foot-high involved.?

Mulas said it was only the fourth time the heat treatment box had been used, and it appeared it was loaded incorrectly.

He said dense blocks of stacked 4-by-6-inch lumber were loaded at one end of the box, while pallets were placed close to the heat source. When censors in the dense wood indicated moisture was still present, the drying unit put out more heat than the less-dense pallets could handle.

?Basically it just cooked the pallets until they burst into flames,? Mulas said.

Luckily, work around the yard starts at 5 a.m., Vallandingham said.

One of the workers noticed steam from the heat treatment box and, after making his rounds of the yard, black smoke, Mulas said.

When he opened the unit, flames burst out. After applying a chemical retardant, he called 911.

Mulas said the yard was scheduled for its annual inspection May 31 but the inspection was moved up to Thursday because of concerns about fire access and wood storage.

?Those are the issues that are going to be addressed,? he said.