An early morning fire at the Tyson Foods plant in Wallula has shut down the plant for at least the day while fire crews battled a “large grease fire.”
Workers were evacuated and later shifts told not to come to work on Tuesday. Officials said part of the plant that employs 1,400 people was likely to reopen Wednesday.
The beef slaughtering and processing operation is Walla Walla County’s second largest employer.
Emergency crews were called about 4 a.m. to reports of a fire in the animal rendering area of the plant southeast of Pasco off Highway 12.
Arriving firefighters with Walla Walla Fire District 5, Franklin Fire District 3 and the Pasco Fire Department saw heavy smoke coming from large open doors on the north side of the building.
They later called for more help from firefighters in Kennewick and Richland and from Benton Fire District 1.
The rendering section of the facility is where fat is separated from the animals, said Mike Wickstrom, chief of Walla Walla Fire District 5.
“You’re basically fighting a really large grease fire,” he said.
Temperatures reached about 1,000 degrees, melting some of the overhead walkways inside and making it hard to reach certain areas higher up, he said.
“It’s a very difficult area to work around,” Wickstrom said.
Some parts of the roof also were damaged, though heavy smoke inside made it hard to tell how much of the area was scorched, he said.
Gas and electricity were shut off in most of the building as a safety precaution, though some power stayed on to help with smoke ventilation.
Wickstrom said the rendering area will likely be closed for a while, but he expected other parts of the plant would reopen.
“They’re pretty creative here in trying to keep their people working and keeping the plant moving,” Wickstrom said.
Gary Mickelson, senior director of public relations for Tyson Foods, said the damage was limited to a small part of the building and they expected to resume production by Wednesday.
“Because we’re still assessing the situation, we’ve decided to cancel production for today,” he said.
No one was hurt and fire crews planned to remain at the plant through the day.
Tyson processes 128,000 head of cattle per week at Wallula and its sister plants.
With an annual payroll of $51 million and a $900 million appetite for local cattle, Tyson’s Wallula plant is one of the Mid-Columbia’s most significant processors.
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