SunOpta burns 29 hours
75 to 100 firefighters.
100-plus gallons of foam
1.1 million gallons of water.
More than $1 million in damage.
These statistics briefly sum up the fire that broke out early Friday morning at the SunOpta plant located along 3rd Avenue/County Road 82 near the Douglas County Fairgrounds.
The initial fire call was reported just a few minutes before 1 a.m. last Friday, January 21, according to Alexandria Fire Chief Jeff Karrow. He said an employee saw smoke coming from the eaves and water dripping from the roof. The employee, he said, opened a door, saw an orange glow and immediately called 911.
When the first team of Alexandria firefighters arrived on scene, Karrow said they were "very cautious and conservative" because of concerns with flashover (fire spreading rapidly because of intense heat) and also not knowing if the building was going to collapse or not.
In addition, he said firefighters didn't know what type of product was burning.
SunOpta manufactures soy-based food products.
Karrow noted that the SunOpta employees who were on scene were very helpful and provided an inventory of chemicals and other products that were inside the burning building.
Because of the chemicals, Karrow said the state chemical assessment team out of Morris was immediately notified, along with the state fire marshal.
The chemicals inside the building were non-toxic, said Karrow. He noted that they were food chemicals. All toxic chemicals had been moved via forklift to a different building, he said.
"There was no spillage or leaks or impingements [with the toxic chemicals]," said Karrow.
He noted that during the fire, the air was being monitored and that in total, it was monitored for about 15 hours.
"There was no environmental impact and no health issues," Karrow stated. "Everything is being disposed of properly."
After firefighters were on the scene for nearly three hours, not only battling the fire, but the elements as well - temperatures without windchill dipped close to 30 degrees below zero - they called for mutual aid. The Garfield Fire Department and the Osakis Fire Department assisted.
A short time later, two more departments were called - Forada and Carlos.
Karrow said it was because of the weather, not how big the fire was, that extra manpower was needed.
Next up, six more fire departments were called for mutual aid including Brandon, Evansville, Miltona, Kensington, Parkers Prairie and Glenwood. Altogether, Karrow estimated that between 75 and 100 firefighters helped to battle the blaze.
Pumper trucks from the Forada and Brandon fire departments were used on the scene.
Because of the frigid temperatures, Karrow said he worried about the firefighters getting frostbite and/or other cold-weather injuries, along with getting too fatigued.
"It seemed like a losing battle," said Karrow. "Anything Mother Nature could throw at us, she did."
Although he mentioned that the wind was in the fire department's favor - as far as where it was blowing. Had it been blowing from a different direction, the fire department could have had a much bigger concern - Magellan Pipeline Company.
Magellan and SunOpta's other facilities were a concern at one point, but after investigating the scene, Karrow said he "checked those off his bucket list" as far as being a concern.
Two firefighters ended up with mild frostbite and another hurt his back, but all in all, with as many firefighters who were on scene, Karrow was pleased with how everything turned out.
North Ambulance crews were on scene checking the condition of the firefighters, noted Karrow, adding that firefighters had to have their vitals checked before, during and after they battled the blaze.
Karrow was thankful for the support from the community, noting that there was an outpouring of businesses, organizations and community members that stepped up to the plate.
"This community really came together for us," said Karrow.
SunOpta fire damage estimated in millions
Authorities estimated the fire damage to SunOpta in Alexandria "in excess of millions."
No serious injuries were reported and despite the thick clouds of smoke that billowed from the building for days, there was no safety risk to the public, according to authorities. The cause of the fire was not known as of press time.
SunOpta, which was honored with Alexandria's Business and Industrial Appreciation Award in 2006, is the largest producer of shelf-stable soy-based beverages in the United States. SunOpta has two divisions in Alexandria - one in the industrial park and the other on 3rd Avenue.
The facility along 3rd Avenue, established in 1987, reported that it had 70 employees in a 2010 manufacturers and support industries directory published by the Alexandria Economic Development Commission.