When the call rang through the Grandview fire house exactly two weeks ago that a blaze had started in the 1300 block of Wine Country Road in Grandview, Fire Chief Charles Damron said there was only one thought on his mind.
"I was praying it was another building on that block," Damron said this morning as he spoke to members of the Sunnyside Daybreak Rotary Club.
When the fire engines roared up on the scene of the fire at the Wilbur-Ellis facility, Damron knew they were going into a difficult situation.
"It was probably the worst fire at probably the worst possible time," said the Rotary Club guest speaker.
He explained that a weather inversion allowed the smoke plume to rise about 100 feet before it simply stopped, and laid overhead.
Despite the weather, Damron said with a chemical fire the best thing to do is let it burn. He explained that adding water to the flames can often times make things worse, leading to the possible contamination of ground water and the spreading of the chemicals.
A combination of having to let the fire burn itself out and the weather inversion that caused the smoke to stay put led Grandview's emergency personnel to evacuate more than 400 people from the half-mile area surrounding Wilbur-Ellis. Damron said as families were being evacuated, emergency personnel were already working to set up a unified command center that at first included just the Grandview fire, police and public works departments, as well as the Washington State Patrol.
Damron said as the fire continued over the next three days more and more entities got involved. He said in the end 93 different groups had a hand in dealing with the chemical fire. Damron added there were fire personnel on scene from fire departments from as far away as Benton City and Naches Heights. He said the firefighters were rotated in and out to allow each other some down time between shifts.
Damron said on his end it was an interesting event in which to be a part. He said while the fire was smoldering he was told that the firefighters couldn't get within 300 to 400 feet of the building. Damron said there were firefighters stationed on the freeway to keep an eye on the blaze. They reported back to the unified command post, which by that time had been moved from the Grandview Police Department to the Law and Justice Center in Sunnyside.
Damron said the first day of the fire, hazardous materials teams took one look at the firefighters and told them that if any of their turnouts had come in contact with any smoke they would have to bag up their equipment and stop using it.
Damron told Rotarians that he quickly found himself with a lot of firefighters who had no equipment, including firefighters who were helping from other communities.
"So I had no fire department for a day," Damron said.
He explained that after a few quick tests it was determined that if the turnouts were washed twice in a special detergent they were alright to use.
Now that the fire is over and clean-up crews are finishing up at Wilbur-Ellis, Damron said fire investigators are on scene working to determine the cause of the blaze that pushed families out of their homes.
Damron said although it's hard to tell exactly what happened in the warehouse because there is no building left to survey, it is known that the fire started in the northwest corner of the building. Damron said they also know there was a heater in that corner and that the heater had blown a breaker four times that week.
Damron said there is a meeting planned later this month at the armory in Grandview that will once again bring together all of the entities that worked on the fire. Damron said they will use the meeting as a chance to evaluate how current emergency plans worked and give them a chance to revamp anything that needs to be changed.