McMINNVILLE, Ore. — Firefighters brought a three-alarm fire under control April 20 at the Organic Valley Creamery in McMinnville.
The structural damage is severe, officials say, but there were no injuries to employees or first responders.
The cause of the fire is unknown.
The fire started around 2 p.m. in the creamery’s warehouse at 700 North Highway 99 West.
Officials told the Capital Press the fire was so big that units from Salem, Willamina, Lafayette, Carlton, Yamhill, Amity and Tualatin were called to help.
At 2:30 p.m., the McMinnville Fire Department asked residents within a quarter-mile radius of the creamery to evacuate and take shelter as a precaution against refrigerant leaks. At 7:35 p.m., the department lifted the order.
Firefighters were still working on the property April 21. Ann Hanifan, operations chief of the McMinnville Fire Department, told the Capital Press she had just returned from the site, where damage was “serious” and the fire is contained but “still smoldering.”
“(The site) is fairly damaged,” Hanifan said. “We were able to stop (the fire) from taking out a portion of the building, but they’ll have to do some sort of major restructuring of the place.”
Mark Pfeiffer, Organic Valley’s vice president of internal operations, said the scale of damage is “quite devastating.”
Pfeiffer estimated Organic Valley has spent up to $23 million since 2016 renovating the McMinnville plant. After surveying the damage, Pfeiffer said he believes the smaller 2,500-square-foot dryer facility survived but the larger 25,000-square-foot main plant was a total loss.
Pfeiffer said he doesn’t know yet whether the cooperative will rebuild the facility or move elsewhere.
“Honestly, I can’t speculate on that yet,” he said. “I’m kind of reeling.”
Pre-fire, the facility handled about 500,000 pounds of milk daily from 42 area farms. Pfeiffer said in the short term, the cooperative is trying to divert milk to its “extensive network of co-manufacturing partners” so that farmers won’t have to dump milk. In the longer term, Pfeiffer said, the plan is not yet clear.
In a statement April 20, Organic Valley said how the fire started is still unknown.
“A thorough investigation of the incident will be conducted, and we will not speculate on the origin of the fire,” the statement said.
Hanifan of the fire department confirmed the fire’s cause is unknown and fire investigators were on site conducting analyses.
When the fire first struck, officials say they were concerned about the release of anhydrous ammonia, which is used as a refrigerant at the creamery. Anhydrous ammonia can cause irritation to eyes and lead to trouble breathing.
Hanifan said the fire department knew in advance about the potentially hazardous situation. She said the anhydrous ammonia no longer poses much of a community concern because there is no leak, but it remains a concern for those on site.
In the fire’s aftermath, Organic Valley’s leaders say they are eager to support employees, first responders and the community.
“We are working to support all of our employees, the first responders, their families, and the community of McMinnville,” Bob Kirchoff, Organic Valley CEO, said in a statement. “Everyone at our cooperative is ready to help. We are thankful that there are no reported injuries, and we are working to ensure the safety of our employees and the surrounding community.”
Lisa Hill, external spokeswoman for Organic Valley, said although no employees were physically harmed, it appears some lost personal possessions.
The facility employed 47 people. Organic Valley leaders say some employees have been temporarily repurposed and everyone is getting paid until Organic Valley can make a cooperative-wide decision about employment options.
“It’s one minute, one day, one week at a time,” said Pfeiffer, the vice president.