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News / Northwest

Why crews couldn’t stop a fire from spreading inside a huge Tri-Cities vegetable freezer

By Cameron Probert, Tri-City Herald
Published: April 23, 2024, 7:45am

KENNEWICK — A 12-acre cold storage warehouse continued to burn Monday south of Kennewick sending a bitter plume of smoke drifting for miles.

A Yakima-based strike team were still dousing the Lineage Logistics facility in Finley with water, said Jenna Kochenauer, the Benton County Fire District 1 public information officer.

The charred wreckage at 224905 E. Bowles Road is expected to smolder for the next few days.

At this point, it appears the fire destroyed most of the facility that was full of frozen vegetables, Kochenauer said. Even the section that remains standing was damaged by the blaze.

Staff from the Washington state Department of Ecology were at the plant Monday as the anhydrous ammonia that was left there was removed from the intact section of the plant where it was stored.

A shift in the wind sent a plume of smoke above east Kennewick and across the Columbia River into Pasco and Burbank on Monday morning. Benton County Fire District 1 said on its Facebook page that people should avoid spending time in the smoke especially if they have respiratory issues.

The Washington state Department of Ecology’s air monitoring network showed air quality in Kennewick as good at 8 a.m. But that deteriorated to “moderate” by 9 a.m. and then “unhealthy for sensitive people” by 11 a.m.

Thousands of students in Finley and Pasco were not allowed outside for recess or other activities because of the poor air quality.

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The eastbound lane of Bowles Road remained blocked at Finley Road.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, Kochenauer said. Fire District 1 crews were first called at 5:30 a.m. Sunday for smoke inside a freezer.

The 10 workers inside the 525,000-square-foot facility at the time evacuated.

Firefighters spent several hours going through the freezer, which was lined with large racks loaded with plastic pallets of vegetables.

The search for where the fire started was made more difficult by mist inside the freezer exacerbated by the fire suppression efforts and the density of stacked pallets, said Kochenauer.

Once they found the apparent source, it was difficult to reach it.

The sprinkler system initially was able to contain the fire for a while, but couldn’t snuff it out because it was blocked by shelving and stacks of pallets, Kochenauer said.

“We could see the fire was creeping up to the ceiling, so they tried access the fire from the roof,” she said.

After cutting a hole in the roof and pouring more water on it, the wind kicked up and fanned the flames. That was about 12:30 p.m.

The firefighters were then forced to retreat to safety and the fire flared and spread.

Evacuations, fire spreading

Firefighters soon were faced with an additional problem.

As the wind picked up, firefighters tried to stop it from spreading in the building and beyond.

Wind was picking up embers and dropping them in brushy fields to the south and west of the building. Some smaller fires also started to the east.

The dramatic plume of smoke was visible for more than 50 miles away in Connell and the Oregon state border.

A combination of the new fires and the heavy smoke in the area led firefighters to issue evacuation orders to nearby residents about 2:30 p.m.

The area is mainly rural farmland. The Red Cross estimated about 65 people in 25 homes were told to evacuate.

The Red Cross opened an evacuation center where people could go but it was only needed for a few hours.

Fire crews were able to keep fire damage to about 3 acres total. No other buildings burned and no one was hurt, Kochenauer said.

Firefighters hauled in an estimated 100,000 gallons of water to the unincorporated area because it doesn’t have fire hydrants.

They were filling trucks up with water from as far as 4 miles away at Eastgate Elementary School in Kennewick. They also pumped water out of an irrigation canal to pour on the flames.

Firefighters from across Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties helped fight the fire.

By about 6:30 p.m., the danger of the flames had subsided enough to allow residents back into their homes.

Debris from the fire also had landed on railroad tracks running past the warehouse.

It’s unclear how much damage was done to the tracks and whether that will affect train traffic in the area.

Lineage’s Finley warehouse is one of three locations the company has across the Tri-Cities. It provides temperature-controlled warehousing around the world.

The company could not be reached Monday about the damaged facility and their operations.