On Wednesday, Dec 19, the Southeast Rural Fire Department was dispatched to an early afternoon fire in the administrative and maintenance building of Campbell's Nursery tree farm at 12900 O St.
Heavy smoke and flames could be seen from five miles away. En route to the scene, mutual aid was called for from the Waverly Fire Department and Eagle/Alvo Fire Departments for additional tankers and manpower.
Stucco, wood, and plastics fueled the low-lying smoke cloud rolling north from East O Street. More than $1 m worth of storage space, equipment, and supplies at the newest of three Campbell's Nursery facilities. Dick Campbell, the president of the nursery, said employees were inside the building and smelled smoke. The fire was initially located and thought to have started in an attic storage area.
Although there were nine extinguishers on the property, staff members wisely decided not to try and put the growing fire out. Southeast Fire Department crews were alerted at 1:06 p.m.
All 10 staff members at the tree farm and two cats, Delmar and Moe, escaped the fire safely, Campbell said.
The 7,500-square-foot building that housed mechanical, landscape and field crew supplies was fully involved upon arrival by the first fire crews. Southeast Rural Fire Chief Rick Pickel said: "We had several issues to deal with initially. The building contained large amounts of herbicides, chemicals and several vehicles. So, we were concerned with air quality."
The building, while occupied, was still under construction. Due to the construction and the heavy fire, "we also had to deal with the building collapse and trying to protect the adjacent greenhouse structures."
"Due to the recent snow and ice storms and cold temperatures, we had to deal with an ice packed uphill grade driveway. This made initial water shuttle operations difficult. And, tractors from the nursery had to be used to help pull the tankers up the hill," the chief said.
Crews also had to deal with heavy ice around the building, which made for difficult footing.
While the main building and contents were a total loss, fire crews were able to protect the adjacent greenhouses and vehicles.
About two hours into the operation, the fire was declared under control. Forty firefighters fought the blaze for about four-and-a-half hours and used approximately 50,000 gallons of water.
The Red Cross from Lancaster County was responded to provide rehab support for the firefighters.
The Nebraska State Fire Investigator Brad Sloup stated Campbell's had an outside contractor making repairs to a freon line on the central HVAC system. Accidental heat transfer from the soldering torch sparked the fire.
"You can always replace the building," Campbell said, "It's the employees and fire crews I'm worried about."
The trees at the nursery were not harmed. Throughout the night, fire crews were called back several times to the scene for rekindles. Finally, the following morning, around 9 a.m. all of the hot spots were contained.
The building stored everything involved in the process of planting, cultivating and harvesting the variety of trees at the nursery, some planted nine years ago. "If we had a long winter to-do list, it just got longer," Campbell said.