On The Job California: Three-Day Fire Destroys Watsonville Cold-Storage Building

A fire that started on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, and burned for three days destroyed a cold-storage building in Watsonville, CA. Extensive mutual aid was used during the operations. Damage was estimated at $10 million. Building construction and product storage posed problems for firefighters.

The original structure was built in 1928 of Type III construction with poured-in-place concrete walls, a wood-frame interior and a wood roof with asphalt over tar paper. The original four rooms could hold 240,000 wooden boxes of apples. In 1929, an ice house was added to the building. Over the years, additional cooling rooms were constructed. At the time of the fire, the 78,000-square-foot building had a capacity of 650,000 boxes, or 26 million pounds, of apples. About a half-million cases of apple juice were stored in the facility. There were no fire protection or detection systems in the building.

The Watsonville Fire Department was dispatched to an “unconfirmed” structure fire at Apple Growers Ice and Cold Storage Co. at 850 West Beach St. at 3:31 P.M. Engines 4411 and 4412 and Truck 4470, a 100-foot tractor-drawn aerial ladder, responded with nine firefighters under the command of Battalion Chief Bob Martin Del Campo.

Engine 4411 was first to arrive on scene. Captain Rick Pettigrew reported heavy black smoke pushing out of a rollup door at the B/C corner of the building and established “Beach Street Command.” Engine 4411 and Truck 4470 were positioned in front of the building on Beach Street (A side). Engine 4412 laid a 200-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant to supply Engine 4411. An employee advised Pettigrew that all employees were out of the building and the fire was in back of the first cooler, but that the best access was from the front cooler door. Engine 4412 checked the rear of the building for access and found none. The crew from Engine 4412 was assigned as the initial rapid intervention team.

Interior operations

Engine 4411 and Truck 4470 personnel made up two interior-attack crews. A 150-foot, 1¾-inch line and a 200-foot, two-inch pre-connect were deployed from Engine 4411. Each crew entered the first cooler twice, but could not reach the seat of the fire due to low visibility and the pallets of product stacked in the doorway.

Pettigrew requested the balance of the first alarm at 3:38 P.M. Responding with 17 firefighters were Aptos/La Selva Fire District Engine 3513, Engine 4211 from the CAL FIRE station in Pajaro Dunes, Engine 4511 from Pajaro Valley and Engine 4111 from Corralitos and North Monterey County Fire District Engine 5213. The crew of the North Monterey County engine was assigned to back up Watsonville crews on side A. Pajaro Dunes Engine 4211 and Aptos Engine 3513 were assigned to the rear. Aptos Engine 3513 secured a second steamer yard hydrant on the south (B) side of the building for water supply. Engine 4111 from Corralitos was assigned to establish a rapid intervention team and set up on the A side across East Beach Street in front of the Martinelli Cider warehouse.

Watsonville Division Chief Chris Johnson requested a second alarm at 3:45 P.M. The response consisted of Aptos Fire District Engine 3511, Central Santa Cruz Fire District Truck 3472 and Santa Cruz City Engine 3112, along with a chief officer from Aptos and one from North Monterey County. These engines were staged on side B and the crews were assigned to firefighting operations on sides A and C. Central Santa Cruz Fire District Truck 3472 was positioned at the rear (C side) and placed its 105-foot aerial to the roof. This unit was supplied by Aptos Engine 3513. A staging area was established at West Beach and Industrial Road. Aptos Chief Jeff Terpstra was assigned Division C and CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Greg Estrada was assigned Division A. They were responsible for coordinating fire attack and ventilation. Johnson called for Pacific Gas and Electric to terminate power to the building.

The last attempt by interior fire attack crews was 200 feet into the structure. Crews reported they could hit some of the surface areas burning on the ceiling, but could not penetrate the seat of the fire. The fire was burning across the interior of the roof and down into the refrigeration compartments. Due to the stock of products stored 20 to 30 feet high on pallets, with extremely tight access along compartment walls, the interior firefighters could not reach the main seat of the fire.

On side C, firefighters gained access to the roof via Central Santa Cruz Fire District Truck 3472’s aerial ladder to trench ventilate from side C to side A. This effort was initiated with hopes to stop the fire at 20% of the structure to let fire, smoke and other products of combustion ventilate at that point, aiding in interior visibility. This would let interior crews back into the structure and access to reach the seat of the fire. The crews were forced off the roof when it burned through at the B/C corner.

Another ventilation attempt was made from the east (D) side. Crews cut inspection holes into the roof to find the main rafters and attempted another trench cut. After crews cut three inspection holes, they found that under the main roofing and sheathing material was about 18 inches of dense cork insulation. This eliminated the ability to perform another trench cut. The time it would take to complete the trench cut and with rate of fire spread and heat, the fire would reach that location before firefighters could be off the roof.

Defensive operations

At 4 P.M., after gathering information from Martin Del Campo and division group leaders, Estrada and Terpstra decided with agreement from the reporting chiefs that defensive tactics would be initiated. There was never a civilian rescue at stake, nor did they want to risk the life of the firefighters going any deeper into the structure when reaching the main seat of the fire was not a possibility.

Johnson requested a third alarm at 4:20 P.M. Aptos Engine 3512, Santa Cruz Central Fire Protection District Engine 3414, Santa Cruz City Fire Department Truck 3170 and Scotts Valley Fire Protection District Engine 2511 responded with 15 personnel, including three additional chiefs. The engines were staged and Truck 3170 was assigned to the rear.

Command requested a fourth alarm at 5:30 P.M. This was a request for an “immediate need strike team” from Monterey County. Aromas Tri-County Fire District Engine 5111, City of Salinas Engine 5313, Presidio of Monterey Engine 6111, Monterey County Regional Fire District Engine 5512 and City of Seaside Engine 6211 responded with 17 firefighters. All fourth-alarm engines were staged on East Beach Street and the crews were assigned to relieve the first, second, and third-alarm crews as they were rotated into rehab for rest.

On-scene monitoring

Firefighting operations used aerial master streams to control the fire as it vented through the roof and two master streams at ground level on side A in an effort to control the fire. The refrigeration engineer for Apple Growers Cold Storage pumped the residual anhydrous ammonia in the system back into the main storage tank. This held the ammonia in one vessel so it could not be released from the high- and low-pressure lines running through the refrigeration system into the cold rooms.

At 7 P.M., a reverse 911 call advised residents of the city and surrounding areas to stay inside if they have respiratory problems. Due to climatic conditions, the smoke in large volumes was traveling and lying low as it moved across the city and some surrounding areas.

At 8:28 P.M., the Santa Cruz Hazardous Material Interagency Team (SCHMIT) was dispatched to the scene with Captain John Gambello from the Scotts Valley Fire District as team leader. On arrival, Gambello received a briefing and assignment from Johnson. Team members set up the computer and took weather readings. Johnson asked the team to take readings around the perimeter of the fire building to check the air/smoke and water runoff from the fire for ammonia and other potential hazards. Monitoring began on side B, then to sides A, D and C. PH paper and the four-gas monitor were used. Side D was the downwind side. All readings from the water and air were negative except for carbon monoxide (CO) from the four-gas monitor. The CO reading reached 39. Gambello obtained an ammonia monitor from a Martinelli employee to monitor the same areas. The readings on the ammonia monitor were all zero. The findings were reported to Martin Del Campo. The crew returned to the hazmat unit for a short rehab and was released from the scene at 2:30 A.M. on Thursday, April 21.

Action plans developed

At 10 P.M. Wednesday, Terpstra was assigned to the Salvage Group and Chief Jim Delucchi from the Scotts Valley Fire Protection District was assigned to C-side operations. Terpstra met with the company’s president, John Martinelli, and his employees and removed pallets of apple juice from the D side of the structure before the fire could reach that side. This effort salvaged $1.5 million of product.

The incident was divided into 12-hour operation periods with action plans developed for each operating period beginning at 8 A.M. on Thursday. The day shift was from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M., and the night shift from 8 P.M. to 8 A.M. Shifts beginning Thursday were filled through the California Master Mutual Aid Agreement. Individual fire agencies were asked for availability first and then resources were requested through mutual aid from the county operational area and finally through the California Region II Area operational coordinator.

At 10:32 A.M. the following day, an ammonia transport truck from Hills Brothers in San Jose responded to the scene and removed the remaining anhydrous ammonia from the system.

Watsonville Fire Chief Mark Bisbee declared the fire under control at 6:41 P.M. on Saturday, April 23. Mutual aid units were released at this time. Watsonville units conducted periodic inspections and patrols for hot spots until April 25.


A five-day investigation by Watsonville Fire Department and private insurance investigators determined the fire was caused by an open flame from a torch being used during roofing repairs. The flame from the torch came in contact with combustibles through a hole in the roof and into the wooden ceiling components. Burning roofing materials fell into the lower-level fuels, igniting them. Damage was estimated at $6.1 million to the building and $3.9 million to the contents.

Eighty-one firefighters battled the fire at its height. Eighteen engines, four trucks and 12 chief officers operated at the scene. The refrigeration system tank held 5,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia. A total of 5,700 pounds were extracted from the tank and piping. There were no civilian or firefighter injuries.

JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.