Five Barron County fire departments sent personnel and equipment to Barron Monday morning, Sept. 9, 2019, after fire broke out in a cooling tower adjacent to the Jennie-O Turkey Store’s multistory grain elevator in Barron.
Barron-Maple Grove Fire Chief Mike Romsos said that the fire was brought under control in about an hour, thanks to the combined efforts of his department and those of the Chetek, Cumberland, Rice Lake and New Auburn fire departments, as well as the assistance of Jennie-O employees, Mayo Clinic Health System ambulance crews, the Barron Police Department and the Barron County Sheriff’s Department.
Firefighters had to work their way through heavy smoke as they looked for the sources of the fire in the tower.
“The fire didn’t extend into the concrete (grain) elevator,” Romsos said Tuesday, Sept. 10. “But we had to fight the fire above and below ground. What you see above ground is just part of the cooling tower.”
Fighting the fire also included a lot of legwork. Normally, there’s an elevator that can bring people from ground level to the top of the grain elevator, one of the highest structures in Barron County.
“But we killed all the power to the feed mill after the fire broke out, so we couldn’t use the elevator,” Romsos said. “The 16 guys from our department, and from the other departments that were there, had to climb ladders.”
At one point, firefighters climbed all the way to the top of the elevator to make sure there was no fire there, he added.
Railroad, city utilities warned
Within minutes of the fire’s outbreak, a pair of important phone calls went out from the Barron County Sheriff’s Department Office of Emergency Services.
At 8:12 a.m., Mike Judy, emergency services director, asked dispatchers to notify the Canadian National Railway that fire hoses had been stretched across the track from a hydrant on the Barron County Highway Department property.
The railroad agreed to halt traffic on the line, and requested it be notified when the track was clear again. The all-clear signal went out to the railroad about two hours later.
The second call was made to the city of Barron Water Utility shortly after 8:30 a.m. City officials were told “that the Fire Department is pushing 8,000 gallons of water per minute,” an amount that would drain the city’s lone water tower at a rate much higher than normal rate of consumption.
The extra drain on the city water supply didn’t last long, however. Just after 9:15 a.m., Judy asked dispatchers to notify the city that the fire was under control and that the extra water consumption was at an end.
Still sorting things out
The blaze broke out in a portion of the feed mill that heats the grain used by Jennie-O for its turkey feed supply.
“The cooling tower mixes heat with the feed, and then it’s stored in the elevator,” Romsos said. “When we first got there, there were still workers inside. They said (the fire) happened so fast, but they got out on their own, and nobody had to be rescued.”
Jennie-O workers guided the firefighters into the structure. Then the firefighters (from Barron-Maple Grove) and other departments took over.
“When you’re wearing (an oxygen pack), you spend 10 to 15 minutes (in the burning structure) at a time,” Romsos said. “So it’s a big turnaround. You usually have two or three (firefighters) inside at a time. So there are other teams standing by. If you have three inside, you must have three more at the door to relieve the team that’s inside, or to help out in case something goes awry.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, Romsos was still trying to tally up the number of firefighters and vehicles that showed up at Jennie-O. Besides all the personnel and equipment, the New Auburn Fire Department also responded with a unit Romsos called “the rehab trailer.” The climate-controlled vehicle provides a safe place for firefighters to rest between work shifts.
“Mike Judy called New Auburn for that unit early on,” Romsos said.
The same trailer was used by Barron-Maple Grove and Cameron firefighters when a pair of house fires broke out last January on a winter day when temperatures didn’t rise above 20 below zero, he added.
The first order of business was “to knock down the flames and cool what was inside the building,” Romsos said. “The steel building (where the fire took place) is connected to the concrete building, and you don’t want the concrete to get too hot.”
Cause still being investigated
Romsos said Jennie-O is conducting its own investigation into the cause of the fire. “We have a general idea” of what started the fire, but an official announcement won’t be made until the investigation is over, he said.
“At the time we were getting ready to leave (at about 1 p.m. Monday), they already had people going in to check the electricity,” Romsos added.
Richard M. Williamson, a spokesperson for Hormel Foods, parent company of Jennie-O Turkey Store, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 10, which said:
“We would like to thank the first responders who worked diligently to save the mill. We are thankful that there weren’t any team members injured and that the fire is out. Limited operations at the mill began last night (Monday, Sept. 9).
“Over the next week, as the damage is assessed, we intend to make the permanent repairs needed to bring the mill back to full production,” Williamson added. “We are not sure what caused the fire at this point and will be working with the local fire authorities to investigate the incident as soon as possible.”