Fire officials continue to investigate if equipment failure was to blame for Tuesday’s three-alarm blaze at the Tyson Foods meat processing plant in Wallula.
“We’ve never had a fire in that part of the plant before,” said Mike Wickstrom, chief of Walla Walla Fire District 5. “They have a good record of safety. It’s very rare to have a third-alarm fire in an industrial complex.”
The fire broke out about 4 a.m. Tuesday in the rendering division, where fat gets separated from the animals in large cooking vats.
About 40 firefighters from Walla Walla, Franklin and Benton counties were called in for the largest fire the plant has faced in recent memory, Wickstrom said Thursday.
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Wickstrom, who has worked with the district for 18 years, recalled two smaller blazes at the plant. One was an electrical fire eight years ago that crews knocked out quickly, and another about 10 years ago when some insulation ignited as welders worked on the roof.
Though Tyson continues to investigate, Wickstrom said the cause appears to be unintentional and that investigators haven’t ruled out possible equipment failure. The flames likely started outside of the fat separation vats, he said.
We’ve never had a fire in that part of the plant before.
Mike Wickstrom, chief, Walla Walla Fire District 5
The plant southwest of Pasco off Highway 12 is U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected, which means federal inspectors will go through to make sure everything’s sanitary before full production resumes.
If officials think an area’s not acceptable, workers won’t be allowed to restart, said Maria Machuca, with the USDA.
It’s unknown how long that process could take.
At least 1,100 employees at the plant that employs about 1,400 returned to work Wednesday, said Caroline Ahn, public relations manager at Tyson Foods.
Processing continued Wednesday and Thursday, but they were still not taking in any new animals, she said.
Tyson Foods confirmed that repairs are underway and that they are still assessing when the plant could be fully operational.
The estimated 300 employees who are not working because of the fire damage will continue to receive pay and benefits, Ahn said.
Most of the damage was to interior mezzanines and catwalks that melted away in the rendering area of the plant because of the extreme heat.
Temperatures up toward the high ceiling reached about 1,000 degrees, according to initial estimates. However, Wickstrom said the structural damage does not appear to be significant, which should make repairs easier.
Tyson processes 128,000 head of cattle per week at Wallula and its sister plants.
The Wallula plant has an annual payroll of $51 million, making it one of the Mid-Columbia’s most significant processors and Walla Walla County’s second largest employer.
Herald reporter Wendy Culverwell contributed to this story.