No danger to public following fertilizer plant fire in Woodburn, officials say
The story has been updated with information regarding the cause of the fire.
A two-alarm fire at the Wilbur-Ellis fertilizer plant on Hardcastle Avenue left no injuries and was contained before anyone had to be evacuated. Officials say despite the storage of pesticides and chemicals around the burn site, there is no threat to the public.
Fire crews responded to the scene around 11:30 a.m. Nov. 15 and saw heavy black smoke and a significant fire covering a space of about 100-by-100 feet, Woodburn Fire Chief Joe Budge said. The fire was in a storage warehouse where chemicals and pesticides are stored, though that only took up about one-quarter of the warehouse, Budge said.
"It's in a noncombustible steel building, so the structure doesn't burn but it does collapse quickly," Budge explained. "So we needed to get in and get a quick knockdown before it weakened the structure. We were able to get in before that happened."
The cause of the fire, which was extinguished in about 50 minutes, was an electrical failure at a ceiling light or radiant ceiling heater, according to an investigation from the State Fire Marshal's office.
Crews from Hubbard, Aurora, Marion County and Salem assisted, as did six members of the Community Emergency Response Team, which provided food, water, a place to sit, and vitals monitoring for firefighters.
A HAZMAT team from Salem was called in as well.
"Whenever we have a situation where we're concerned about environment or hazards to firefighters or the public, we have them come in," Budge said. "They determined our firefighters were OK and there wasn't danger to the public around from the smoke that did happen."
Not only is the air quality fine, Budge said, but the chemicals were contained and didn't contaminate the public waterway.
"An environmental clean-up contractor was also on site (Friday) and confirmed the City of Woodburn public works assessment that all of the hazardous water runoff from the fire suppression was contained on site," Budge said.
He added that cleanup of the site and removal of contaminated water will likely extend to this week.
Friday's assessment also confirmed that there has been no hazardous exposure to firefighters nor the public, Budge said.
Budge pointed out that Wilbur-Ellis staff did a great job follow protocols.
"They had all their employees out of the structure and at a gathering point, everybody was accounted for and they provided our best access to the property; they did everything we could ask for and more," Budge said. "There are maybe 20 different chemicals in there and they had ready access to that information when we arrived, which was important for us to have."
Budge did admit that an evacuation order for the immediate area might have been issued had the fire persisted, but he said it would just have been a precautionary measure.
Still, police officers did knock on doors around the immediate area to tell people to stay inside.
Chemeketa Community College's Woodburn campus, located about a block away from Wilbur-Ellis, canceled classes until 5 p.m. because of air quality concerns, according to Elias Villegas, dean of the Woodburn center. Pacific University's Woodburn campus, also located roughly a block from Wilbur-Ellis, did not have classes scheduled for Thursday. Woodburn School District, which has schools located within a half-mile of the fertilizer plant, continued its operations as usual, Superintendent Chuck Ransom said.
Local businesses reported the air quality had decreased significantly minutes after the fire broke out. But the air quality improved once flames were extinguished.
Budge did note that the fire was similar to one fought in Aurora the night before at the Foster Farms processing mill on Ehlen Road. That one saw about $1 million in damaged equipment, Budge said.
"We had the same crews that put that fire out; they did a fantastic job there as well," Budge said. "They are very similar fires in terms of the amount of fire presented, and they're both valuable industrial properties."
But he said the Wilbur-Ellis fire probably hasn't caused as much damage.
In 1997, a fire burned the old facility, then owned by Woodburn Fertilizer, and caused the evacuation of local residents.
The rebuilt facility has been owned by Wilbur-Ellis since 2005.
In April 2013, following the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, that killed 14 people and injured more than 200, the Independent interviewed Wilbur-Ellis' then-general manager Scott Roerig. He said that Wilbur-Ellis, which makes both fertilizer and pest control products for agricultural usage, stopped using anhydrous ammonia and ammonium nitrate, two products that are thought to have caused the Texas explosion, at the Woodburn facility seven or eight years earlier.
Roerig at the time also noted the fire of 1997 was different because the structure was wooden and not steel. Plus he claimed the company followed an established risk management plan and follows state and local laws carefully.
The most recent report from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is from December 2014, which showed no violations and labeled the facility's status as a conditionally exempt generator. To earn that designation, a site must, for every calendar month, generate 220 pounds or less of acute hazardous waste or spill cleanup debris containing hazardous waste, or to never have more than 2,200 pounds of hazardous waste on site. It has not had any violations for five years.