|Polk County Enterprise - Local News
Copyright 2011 - Polk County Publishing Company
Mulch fire spreads to 4 acre complex in Leggett
BY VALERIE REDDELL
NEW WILLARD — An estimated 180 firefighters from 26 fire departments throughout Southeast Texas converged on a four-acre mulch plant in New Willard where a fire raged for more than six hours Sunday. The fire was reported at 2:40 p.m. Sunday afternoon at Hope Agri Products, formerly Wonder Chemical, on Loop 116. When the first trucks arrived the smoke and flames were limiting visibility on the four-acre site. “The majority of the southeast portion of the mulch piles were on fire,” Livingston Fire Chief Corky Cochran said. “Gusting winds were moving it very rapidly in a northwesterly direction towards the building.” At least three trailers used to haul mulch products were in the path of the advancing fire lines, Cochran said. “We were also advised that there were some small propane tanks that could not be seen due to the poor visibility,” Cochran said. “Within just a few minutes, those propane tanks began to vent and started to blow up.” Cochran said their initial strategy was to cut the fire off on the south side of the building. “The high winds carried the fire past that initial plan, into the mulch around the behind the building,” he added. LVFD deployed firefighting resources into three command sectors. LVFD Assistant Chief John Haynes, Jimbo Hobson, Preston Jones and Frank Sylestine of the Texas Forest Service and Alabama-Coushatta VFD and Onalaska Fire Chief Jay Stutts, set up behind the building, the most intense part of the fire. On the southeast side of the fire, Dwayne McGarrahan and Josh Mohler coordinated the line of pumpers dropping water into drop tanks and supplying water to hose teams. Scenic Loop Fire Chief Donald Marlowe coordinated similar efforts on the east side of the building. “The initial sector was on the southeast side and then they set up on the east side and finally the west side,” Cochran said. “Each of those areas had a set group of tankers that were delivering water to those particular areas. That cut down on some of the confusion.” Livingston Fire Marshal Mark Taylor and Livingston Police Chief Dennis Clifton also worked at the entrance to the plant to deploy tankers to fire teams. A helicopter with the Texas Forest Service made numerous water drops over the massive fire. That air support helped combat the intense heat and smoke, Cochran said. “He wasn't in the best situation either,” Cochran said. “He was having to deal with the wind too. At times he had to fly blind through smoke and it was difficult to see where to make his drops. A dozer from the Texas Forest Service plowed a line around the back side of the complex to keep the fire from spreading through the undergrowth to adjoining property. Cochran said the frequent fires at the site occur because of a natural process that results in internal combustion. “It's much like if you have a pile of rags or mops in a closet that goes through a heat process, it can ignite itself internally,” Cochran said. When conditions get right with heat, humidity and wind it ignites.” Firefighters at the southeast sector behind the building were in harm's way for some time, Cochran said. “With the intense heat and smoke, they were pretty much at the mercy of mother nature. From time to time the wind would change course and give them some relief,” Cochran said. “The primary effort was to keep the fire out of the two buildings.” Pallets of packaged mulch materials ready for shipment were stacked near the building on all sides. “Our concern was to try to keep the fire from getting into those materials. Had that happened, the next step would have been fire and heat impinging on the structures themselves,” he said. Sunday's fire was the most intense Cochran's seen at that site. “In the past, we've been able to contain it to one long row of the pile, or sections of the pile. We've never had situations where heat, humidity and wind combined to push the fire over the entire complex like it did,” Cochran said. Several times during the fire, the crew on the southeast sector had to call for additional hoses because the intense heat caused the lines to rupture. “One time they had to put a stream of water on the fire engine, Miss Effie, to keep it cooled down,” Cochran said. Haynes said crews on the southwest corner of the building had to continually rotate or replace hose line crews because burning piles and equipment that had been put out would reignite. “Also, with all the equipment, firefighters and limited visibility, no one was run over, there were no wrecks with the apparatus and there weren't even any harsh words because of close call,” Haynes said. “This is a direct result of the training received by the fire departments, especially in safety training.” That equipment included 25 tankers, nine engines, six brush trucks, a heavy rescue truck and ladder truck. Cochran's early estimate showed more than 300,000 gallons of water were used to fight the fire. One Scenic Loop firefighter, Chris Morgan, was taken to the emergency room at Memorial Medical Center-Livingston with heat exhaustion and smoke injuries. One Livingston firefighter was treated at the scene for heat exhaustion, but asked not to be identified. In addition to the 26 fire departments who responded, agencies offering assistance included Americare EMS, Polk Co. Sheriff's Office, Texas Department of Public Safety, SHECO linemen came in and killed the power to the complex, Texas Forest Service and Texas Department of Transportation. Family members of firefighters in various departments and other citizens delivered water, Gatorade and ice to fire crews. The Red Cross also helped with supplies. “Everybody who was here, either named or unnamed, did a yeoman's job and went above and beyond,” Cochran said. “This is not a normal fire. It's the worst fire we've ever had there. I'm not sure it wasn't one of the toughest we've ever had to deal with because of covering about four acres and the building involved and having to shuttle water in from hydrants in Livingston.” Crews also had to return to Livingston for additional compressed air to continuing filling firefighters' air packs. “A number of things were totally negative,” Cochran said. Cochran added that he and Emergency Management Coordinator Larry Shine have met with Ken Allen, president of Hope Agri Products, three times Monday and Tuesday and he has been very receptive to making changes at the plant that would improve the water supply and fire suppression system.