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Company talks about huge Finley warehouse fire: What it’s doing, why it’s taking so long

By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald
Published: June 11, 2024, 7:33am

KENNEWICK — The global owner of the cold storage warehouse that’s been burning east of Kennewick for more than 45 days says it could take six to eight weeks more to fully clear the site of an estimated 90,000 tons of debris.

The 12-acre warehouse — equivalent to the area of about nine football fields — has been burning and smoldering in rural Finley since April 21.

Lineage posted a new website on Friday to address ongoing community concerns and questions, ranging from the fire’s affect on the region’s food supply to why crews are not working around the clock on cleanup at the charred warehouse.

“We recognize the profound impact the fire at our Kennewick facility has had on the community and everyone who lives here,” Lineage said on the website. “Many of our Lineage team members are Finley and Kennewick residents themselves, and both our local and national leadership is focused on marshaling resources to accelerate fire recovery efforts.”

Signal Restoration Services, the company Lineage hired to demolish the building, is deploying 47 heavy-duty construction vehicles, such as bulldozers and excavators, to tear down parts of the building that are not still burning.

That will allow 60 to 70 trucks to be filled each day to carry away debris daily, it said.

The debris includes metal that may be recycled, plus plastic, electronics and food.

There have been periodic fire flare ups as dry material and debris is unearthed.

The building is so large that Benton Fire District 1 has had trouble getting water to its center even with its tallest fire truck. And it is too dangerous to send firefighters on foot through the unstable structure to reach the center of the building, Lineage said.

Tearing down outer portions of the building will allow trucks to get closer to spray water in areas along the building’s center where debris still is burning.

“We have seen and will continue to see a significant improvement with smoke shedding as we are able to get to the nucleus of the structure and suffocate hot spots better each day,” Lineage said on the community webpage.

Firefighters have put about 36 million gallons of water onto the fire, which is believed to be the largest structure fire ever in the Tri-Cities area, possibly one of the largest ever in the Northwest, some local fire officials have said.

Signal Restoration Services also has been spraying water on debris as demolition is being done on portions of the building not still burning, Lineage said.

Cleanup and fire suppression

Signal Restoration Service is making impressive progress on tearing down portions of the building, allowing better access to the center of the building, Scott LoParco, Benton Fire District 1 chief, said earlier in the week, and people posting on social media agreed that they are seeing progress.

The metal racks that once filled most of the building to hold frozen vegetables are being torn down using excavators. Work is also advancing to clean up 30-foot-tall piles of corn, peas, carrots and potatoes, some of them coated with oil, and other debris within the warehouse.

The Benton County Commission sent Lineage a letter earlier this week requesting that it expand its cleanup work to 24 hours a day as nearby residents suffer in smoke from the smoldering fire.

Signal Restoration Service currently is working 12 hours a day to tear down the building and haul away metal for recycling and debris for disposal.

Lineage said on its community webpage that darkness adds to the risk of those working on the site, and that clearing or treating certain areas of the fire sometimes requires approval by investigators and inspectors who are not available 24 hours a day.

Lineage is installing additional lighting towers to further improve evening visibility, it said.

Dropping water from helicopters is not a viable option, as that could further destabilize the building, it said.

Local officials also have said that Washington state will not provide aerial firefighting for a fire that does not pose a threat to buildings or natural resources.

Local officials also have questioned whether water drops would penetrate through mounds of debris to reach the smoldering fire.

Getting water to the fire was a problem initially.

Rural Finley has no domestic water supply and there are restrictions on using Benton Irrigation District ditch water and city of Kennewick water. Using irrigation water from a nearby canal also has been a concern because of the reduced supply available this year for farms and ranches.

However, Lineage has since gotten access to its on-site well and approval to use its water pump powered by on-site generators to fill the water cannon trucks Signal Restoration Services is using for fire suppression. Lineage also is asking to increase its use of ditch water.

Will Lineage rebuild?

Lineage has not indicated whether it plans to rebuild the Finley warehouse, saying that conversation will wait until the urgent work of removing debris and putting out the fire is done.

The 82 employees based at the warehouse have been offered Lineage positions elsewhere and most are back at work, Lineage said.

The fire also disrupted the regional food supply.

But Lineage says it has diverted millions of pounds of food from elsewhere to keep the food supply chain running.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, but it does no appear to be suspicious, according to Lineage.

The company has had little to say about the fire until it posted its community website.

It did not accept an invitation to speak or answer questions at a Finley town hall meeting May 29 to hear and respond to concerns about residents in the Finley and Burbank areas suffering from ongoing smoke from the fire.

“Please know it isn’t because we haven’t wanted to be highly communicative,” Lineage said on its new website. “Rather it’s because it is a very complex and fluid situation that we take very seriously, and we didn’t want to provide you with incomplete or misleading information.”

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It will continue to post updates on its website at onelineage.com/kennewick-response, it said.

Air quality near fire

On Friday, the Benton Franklin Health District was scheduled to install additional air monitors in the Finley area, the newest ones mounted on homes and businesses.

Air nearest the warehouse has been so smoky at times that air quality is rated as “hazardous.”

A new permanent monitor installed at the Finley middle school has found air smoky enough to be rated as “unhealthy” for an hour or so some mornings.

Residents at the May 29 town hall described health problems they linked to the smoke, including a child who wakes up in the night with nose bleeds and vomiting and a teen with pneumonia.

Other residents said they had migraines, bronchitis and frequent doctor visits as the smoke has exacerbated their asthma or other respiratory issues.

About 1,000 masks, 96 air purifiers and 91 box fans and filters were handed out in recent drive-thru events in Finley.

As more supplies become available, they will be handed out or delivered to homebound residents at high risk from the smoke.

There does not appear to be an immediate threat to drinking water of homes near the site that use private wells, the health district said.

The Benton Franklin Health District has posted information for residents caught in the smoke or concerned about their drinking water due to runoff from fighting the warehouse fire at bfhd.wa.gov.