Officials are still working to determine the cause of a fire that broke out early last Friday at the West Liberty Foods meat processing in plant in Tremonton, injuring three employees, forcing evacuations of nearby homes and causing at least $1.5 million in estimated property damage.
Shortly after 5:30 a.m. Friday, Oct. 2, firefighters from Tremonton and Garland responded to the sprawling facility located at 705 N. 2000 West, where a fire that started in a main boiler room on the west side of the plant was sending tall flames from the roof into the early morning darkness. They were joined by crews from the Fielding and Brigham City departments, with all four agencies working together to put the fire out within about two hours.
Blair Westergard, battalion chief for the Tremonton Fire Department, said the initial call indicated that an employee had received burns. It was later discovered that three maintenance workers had been burned, one of whom was taken by ambulance to Bear River Valley Hospital. The other two drove themselves to the nearby hospital for medical attention, Westergard said.
“We found out that maybe the injured were just looking under the door, and it flashed and got them,” Westergard said. “(The injuries) are all just minor – significant, but minor.”
The main concern of firefighters was that the flames could reach a nearby area where tanks containing some 50,000 pounds of highly flammable ammonia, which the plant uses in its refrigeration systems, are located.
The boiler room, which Westergard described as a total loss, was in an outbuilding separate from the main facility, which helped in keeping the fire from spreading. However, because of the potential for the blaze to reach the area where the chemicals are stored, homes along several blocks of 2300 West were evacuated for about two hours until the situation was brought under control.
The chemical hazard also forced firefighters to operate in what Westergard called “defense mode.
“The one building (boiler room) was already involved enough that we weren’t going to send anybody in,” he said. “We fought it from afar because of the potential of the ammonia.”
He said there were a total of four engines, two ladder trucks and two ambulances on the scene.
Employees were evacuated and sent north to the area of the Premier Truck Group of Tremonton facilities on 1000 North while firefighters continued to work.
The Utah State Fire Marshal’s office is investigating the blaze, along with officials from West Liberty Foods and the company that supplied the boiler. A cause has yet to be determined, but Westergard said it is not suspicious.
The damage was mostly limited to the building containing the boiler, but some employee vehicles in the parking lot nearby were also damaged. The initial estimate of damage was at least $1.5 million.
A top official at West Liberty Foods LLC said the fire should have a minimal impact on operations at the Tremonton facility.
Dan Waters, vice president and general counsel for the West Liberty, Iowa-based company, said the fire cut off access to hot water for two production lines. There are other boilers at the site, and the company was working on a solution to get water from those boilers to the affected lines.
“Some people will not report for second shift tonight and beyond that, I’m not aware of any shifts being canceled,” Waters said Friday afternoon. “It should be a relatively minor disruption in production, and nobody should lose a job or be furloughed” because of the fire.
He said that because of the potential fire hazard, the plant was purposely designed to have boilers in outbuildings rather than inside the main building.
The Tremonton facility is one of the top suppliers of sandwich meats for the Subway restaurant chain. It also supplies meat products for Costco and other large clients.
Waters confirmed that three employees sustained burns to their hands and faces, but all were out of the hospital by lunchtime Friday.
“We’re sorry that people got hurt, but we’re grateful it’s not worse,” he said.
He said several employee vehicles were damaged, one of them badly. The company is arranging for those employees to have rental cars, and will cover their repair costs, he said.
Waters said he has been with West Liberty Foods since before it opened its first plant in 1996. The company also has manufacturing plants in Iowa and Illinois, and this is the first time there has been such a fire at any of its facilities.
“This is a one-time event in the history of West Liberty Foods,” he said.