Fire At Iowa Turkey-Processing Plant Requires Massive Water Shuttle

Steve Meyer describes a fire that destroyed a landmark local food-processing facility and put 350 people out of work.


A major fire in and of itself is devastating enough, but when a community’s major employer decides not to rebuild after the fire, it’s a double whammy. Photos courtesy of Waukon Standard Newspaper At the time of the fire, the 63,000-square-foot plant was shut down to...


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A major fire in and of itself is devastating enough, but when a community’s major employer decides not to rebuild after the fire, it’s a double whammy.

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Photos courtesy of Waukon Standard Newspaper
At the time of the fire, the 63,000-square-foot plant was shut down to conduct maintenance on equipment.

The City of Postville, IA, with a population of 2,250, is protected by a volunteer fire department with a force of 40 members who respond with three engines, two tankers, one quick attack unit and one rescue unit. The city relied heavily on the Iowa Turkey Products Plant for employment of 350 people.

Postville firefighters had no idea when they answered an alarm at the plant at 12:40 P.M. on Dec. 20, 2003 that they would soon play a part in the biggest fire in the city’s history, a fire that will affect the city for decades.

The 63,000-square-foot plant was shut down on Dec. 18 to conduct maintenance on equipment before a change in ownership that was to occur in January. No processing was going on in the plant. A security guard discovered smoke when he was doing a routine check of one of the plant’s coolers. Postville Fire Chief Milo Sebastian says it is not clear what exactly the security guard saw, and that information is not available as the fire remains under investigation. The guard thought the fire was too big to put out with a fire extinguisher and called for the fire department.

Captain Jeff Bohr was the initial incident commander. Sebastian, who operates a crane and tree removal service, was an hour away setting roof trusses. He was notified of the fire immediately and left the job to get to the fire. Once on scene, Bohr passed command to Sebastian.

Firefighters could already see smoke coming from the area of the plant when they responded to the Postville Fire Station, nearly a mile away. Bohr immediately called for assistance from the department’s four closest mutual aid departments: Castalia, Luana, Monona and Waukon.

By the time the first-in unit of the Postville Fire Department arrived, black smoke was already pouring from the building. Firefighters had an activated hoseline from the department’s quick attack and a crew inside the building within 10 minutes of receiving the alarm. Visibility was so poor that the department’s thermal imaging camera was used to try to find the seat of the fire.

The first-in crew remained inside for 45 minutes attempting to squelch the fire while conditions worsened. The interior crews were withdrawn when the building began showing signs of collapse. The post fire investigation determined that even with the help of the thermal imaging camera, firefighters were not getting water on the fire due to a wall that could not be seen through all the smoke.

Knowing that municipal water supply at the plant amounted to one hydrant fed by a four-inch water main led to requests for more mutual aid. Eventually, a massive water shuttle operation evolved that supplied a conservative estimate of 3,000 gallons per minute of water at the fire’s peak demand. A total of 1.5 million gallons of water was pumped on the fire over the eight-hour period that firefighters were engaged in fighting it. The majority of the fire flow was provided by shuttle from an industrial cooling pond, city hydrants, dry hydrants in the area and an industrial water tower.

Twenty fire departments responded to the fire as requested from Iowa and Wisconsin. Water was supplied to three aerial trucks that came via mutual aid and three engines. Each aerial and engine was managed by a sector officer. Each water fill site was managed by an officer, as was each dump site supplying an aerial or an engine.

“I don’t care how much water power we had,” Sebastian said. “We were doomed from the start.” He added that the building, with a concrete-block exterior wall and many additions and a wooden interior, was originally built for use as a creamery.

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Photos courtesy of Waukon Standard Newspaper
The fire was the biggest in the small city’s history, but firefighters had prepared by pre-planning and repeated tours.
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