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Pacific Seafood Makes Fast Recovery from Warrenton Fire

 

The Pacific Seafood plant in Northwest Oregon was destroyed by fire late last month. Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Littlejohn, courtesy of the US Coast Guard.

The fishing port of Warrenton, Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River lost the major buyer and biggest employer in the town when Pacific Seafood was destroyed by fire on June 4. Fortunately, there were no injuries among the 80 employees at work or 55 firefighting personnel who tackled the blaze. Only a long and strenuous effort prevented the fire from spreading to the crowded parking lot, the Hampton Lumber mill, or nearby waterfront apartments.

The alarm was raised at 10:31 am when the 58-foot crabber Kathie H was returning to port from a haul-out at the Port of Astoria. Apparently, the crew was the first to observe the thin plume of smoke rising from the plant. As they turned off the Columbia and onto the Skipanon River, they began filming the scene as the smoke turned into a black cloud, followed by flames shooting skyward.

On shore, the plant was evacuated quickly; one worker said they assumed it was a drill, but within minutes, the building was engulfed in flames. The workers had to leave their cars in the lot at the back of the plant, so many gathered at a safe distance to watch the firefighters battle the blaze. The Warrenton Fire Department was on the scene in four minutes. After checking that everyone was accounted for, Fire Chief Tim Demers deployed his men and quickly decided to call for reinforcements from the nearby communities of Astoria and Seaside, who both sent their ladder trucks.

Only one boat was unloading that morning, the 75-foot Granada with around 65,000 lbs. of shrimp. A day later it was safely back in its berth across the river, where owner Dale Adams explained how he escaped. “We had hoisted close to 17,000 lbs. off the boat when we realized what was happening... we had to get away from there!” He immediately told his two crew to cast off, and took the boat out in the channel, a move that was filmed by the Kathie H, heading for the same dock.

By the time they were a safe distance away, a huge cloud of dense black smoke was billowing from the site – most likely coming from the large number of plastic fish totes melting – and flames reaching a height estimated at 150 feet. The fire crews had been warned of the potential for the release of ammonia from the freezers, plus the danger of the toxic smoke, so all were carrying breathing apparatus.

The Warrenton fire crew concentrated their hoses on the south side, keeping the heat from endangering two large fuel (oil) tanks on the edge of the property. The ladder trucks were positioned on opposite sides of the building, and began pouring water down onto the blaze. Utility teams were challenged in isolating the site because they could not get close enough to the property’s shut-off valves. So a backhoe was bought in to uncover the water line on the access road. Electricity was also switched off at a safe distance.

Two US Coast Guard boats were dispatched from Station Cape Disappointment, Washington across the Columbia River. The 52-foot motor lifeboat Triumph is the region’s only vessel with firefighting apparatus, and attempted to aid the land-based effort. Its 250-gph pump didn’t have the throw to reach the upper fire zone, but it was able to soak the dock and check that the fire wasn’t spreading over the water. The Skipanon Channel was closed to navigation until 6 pm.

The black cloud drifted across the waterway to the dock on the opposite shore where around 40 large fishing vessels, mostly trawlers, were moored. A few crews were busy removing gear to prepare for a summer packing in Alaska and were told to clear the dock because of the danger of toxic gases. The smoke thinned out over the Columbia River, but was blown east by a strong breeze and was noticeable in Astoria, three miles away.

Fifteen fire engines and support vehicles were on site under a clear sky that pushed the temperature to 80 degrees, making it hot work for those on the front line. Every fire unit in Clatsop County was mobilized to the scene or to back up those stations that were now under-manned. The adjacent Hampton Lumber mill sent its workers home and used its hoses to supply extra water from its own fire-suppression system, plus food and cold drinks. About 1 pm, the south wall of the plant collapsed and three loud booms were heard – possibly the fuel tanks on forklifts exploding.

A couple of TV camera crews arrived from Portland, 100 miles away, in time to capture some of the excitement and were doubtless beaming footage back to the metropolis. After being soaked by multiple pumps and hoses for more than four hours, the smoke began to subside around 3 pm. A few of the plant’s workforce of 140, mainly Spanish-speaking, were still in attendance, having watched their jobs go up in flames.

The Coast Guard re-opened the waterway at 6 pm, after the blaze was officially declared extinguished. During the night, a Coast Guard helicopter on a training mission did a fly over to check the site with their infra-red camera and found another hot spot, and there were a couple of small flare-ups the next day; all were quickly dealt with by the Warrenton Fire Department.

Fire Chief Tim Demers told me “These are the kinds of fires that kill people, so we are happy that Pacific Seafood is serious about its fire drills. I think we did a great job – we had mutual aid from all over the county.” No chemical spills were recorded.

The fire is reported to have started on the upper floor where electrical equipment was operating. In addition, a contractor was working on roof vents. The fire burned so fiercely that inspectors found steel sprinkler pipes had melted. Demers stated that the cause of the fire has not been determined by ATP and state investigators, but it was judged to be accidental.

Pacific Seafood CEO Frank Dulcich emphasized that he would soon be back in business in Warrenton: all his workers will continue to receive pay and benefits, and Adams was paid promptly for the product he had landed there, and was able to deliver the rest of his catch to Bornstein Seafoods in Astoria.

Dulcich released the following statement the day after the fire:

“Our Warrenton facility has suffered a devastating fire. First and foremost, we are grateful that no one has been hurt. We are also grateful for the first responders in Clatsop County who fought the fire and managed the situation. 2013 marks our 30th year of operation in Clatsop County, and we plan to be there for many years to come. In the immediate term, we will utilize our other facilities in the region and the kind offers of our many friends to keep our Warrenton team-members and fishermen working and our customers served. We will announce the details of our actions in the next few days. We will also assess the damage to our facility and seek answers to the cause of the fire. Rest assured, we will do our best to keep our team-members, customers and a supportive community informed every step of the way. We don’t want to go anywhere, we don’t plan on going anywhere. We’ve got a solid work force, a great community that really supports us.”

Two days after the fire broke out, Dulcich had re-opened the Warrenton office, icehouse and fuel dock – all were remarkably untouched by the fire.

This put the company’s own boats back in business, delivering to Warrenton where the product could be iced and trucked to other Pacific Seafood plants – north to Westport, Washington or south to Newport, Oregon. Dulcich told his staff “Don’t worry, we’re going to continue, no matter if it takes us months, we’re going to make sure we keep this team together--because we’ve been here 30 years.”

Three days after the fire Dulcich announced he would have a lease signed for a temporary facility by Monday, and be up and running in time for the opening of the arrival of Pacific Whiting and sardines. Over the weekend, that left local fishermen guessing exactly where the vacant plant was: the best guess was the seasonal Del Mar plant at Tongue Point, east of Astoria. This site is a former WW II seaplane base that is operated by the Port of Astoria.

The Warrenton plant was built in the 1940s, and was formerly owned by New England Fish Co. It was the first Pacific processing plant opened by family-owned Pacific Seafood in 1983. The company is based in Clackamas, Oregon. And is the largest seafood processor on the West Coast, employing over 2500 people at 37 facilities.