Fire At Iowa Turkey-Processing Plant Requires Massive Water Shuttle

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 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.

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.

Sebastian said he believes that resins and plastics in the composite wall covering, referred to as “glass board,” that was used throughout the building contributed to the rapid fire spread.

Another contributing factor was the tons of Styrofoam packaging products stored in the second story. Both factors made the building rapidly fill with the thick, black smoke that made it difficult for firefighters to find the seat of the fire.

In response to the growing fire situation, two highways, 18 and 52, that led into Postville, were shut down. Strong winds and atmospheric conditions kept toxic smoke from the fire close to the ground. An estimated 40 people were evacuated by law enforcement authorities from an area extending five miles north of Postville.

Though the building was a loss, Postville firefighters considered the operation a success because they prevented the spread of the fire to neighboring industrial buildings that could have worsened the economic impact to the community. No one was hurt fighting the fire and with that many pieces of fire apparatus maneuvering around the fire and through city streets there was not a single scratch incurred by any of them.

Sebastian and Bohr credit the success of the fire operations to four factors:

2. The fire department routinely conducts water-shuttle training operations and had the knowledge and experience to set up the massive water shuttle required to supply apparatus at the fire.

3. Postville firefighters were familiar with the building. Firefighters toured the building every year to keep themselves familiar with the structure and the challenges a fire would present them.

4. In 2003, the Postville Fire Department was awarded a $99,000 Assistance to Firefighters grant. The grant provided hand-held radios, new breathing apparatus and other equipment that was used at the fire. “We could not have fought this fire as well as we did and communicated as well as we were able to without that equipment,” Sebastian said.

Bohr commented, “The biggest thing with the success of this operation was that we had enough tankers and enough fill sites to maintain the operation.”

In April, Iowa Turkey Products announced that it would not rebuild in Postville and the company would be moved to Marshall, MN.

Fire departments from Iowa that assisted Postville at the fire included Castalia, Clermont, Cresco, Decorah, Elgin, Elkader, Frankville, Lansing, Luana, Marquette, McGregor, Monona, Oelwein, Ossian, Waukon and West Union. Responding from Wisconsin were the Bridgeport and Prairie du Chien fire departments and the La Crosse Hazardous Materials Team.

Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.