Roughly 200 people were evacuated from their homes Monday evening after a fire ripped through a portion of the Grainger Farmer's Cooperative on U.S. Highway 11W.
The blaze began about 4:20 p.m. in the oldest section of the cooperative, and members of the Grainger County Sheriff's Department soon began evacuating everyone living within a half-mile of the blaze. Authorities feared that chemicals in the building could ignite and pose a health hazard.
Earlier concerns about ammonium nitrate catching fire were put to rest, however, as firefighters doused the building where the explosive fertilizer is stored. Ammonium nitrate was used in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Rutledge Fire Chief Scott Wynn said the fire was the largest he has had to deal with during his tenure as chief. He said the blaze was contained around 7 p.m. and that a series of small explosions inside the burning building were most likely aerosol cans. There were no injuries attributed to the fire.
Firefighters from a dozen agencies initially battled the blaze, and some remained on hand into the early morning hours to keep watch on the situation. Residents were told they would not be allowed to return to their homes until at least midnight.
"This is truly the volunteer spirit," Wynn said shortly after ordering 100 hamburgers for the weary firefighters. "We didn't ask any of these other guys to come out. They're here because they want to be here."
Wynn said his department would have to wait until the fire scene has cooled before it can launch a probe into the cause of the blaze. He said the state fire marshal will participate in the investigation.
As of Monday evening, fire officials had no idea what might have caused the fire. The building, which is one of three at the complex, was at least 50 years old, Wynn said.
He said the building was used to house spare parts for tractors, extra tires and some other assorted machinery for local farmers.
Sheriff's deputies blocked traffic from traveling in both directions on Highway 11W about a half-mile on either side of the co-op when the blaze was at its peak.
Evacuees were sent to Rutledge High School, where Grainger County school administrators Anna Jean Cabbage and Linda Hodges served grilled cheese sandwiches and cartons of milk to residents who had been displaced from their homes.
"I'm going to stay here until the people are taken back to their homes," Cabbage said. "Our main concern is that they're comfortable and taken care of."
Comfort was immediately available to some of the older evacuees as Cabbage requisitioned a few spare cots from the high school, while young children sipped on chocolate milk.
The Red Cross also pitched in with cots and other emergency supplies, Cabbage said.
Helen Braston, Mildred Hopson and Lisa Lakins milled around the high school's foyer discussing how smoothly the evacuation had gone.
"It went real good; we all looked out for each other," Lakins said. "It went well, considering these types of things don't happen much around here."
Most of the evacuees, who were transported from their homes to the high school by a school bus, had been picked up by family members before 8 p.m.
Many planned to stay with family and will return to their homes this morning when the investigation into the cause of the fire will most likely commence.