BURLINGTON — Working in five-hour shifts through the night, more than 80 different fire departments battled a massive blaze that tore through a food processing plant near downtown Burlington.
The fire broke out around 6 p.m. Wednesday night at the Echo Lake Foods egg processing plant, 33102 S. Honey Lake Road, and escalated to an eight-alarm event requiring fire assistance from the entire southeast Wisconsin region as well as northern Illinois, Burlington Mayor Bob Miller said.
Facing bitterly cold conditions, strong winds and a large facility with many additions made the blaze “really, really tough to fight,” Miller said.
The fire was contained Thursday and most of the 70,000-square-foot facility was reduced to a tangle of twisted, ice-coated metal. Smoke continued to pour from the wreckage and firefighters kept working to douse several “hot spots” into the afternoon, funneling water from nearby Echo Lake, as well as the city water system, according to Miller. Firefighters were still on the scene as of 8 p.m. Thursday.
The cause of the fire is under investigation, although fire officials could not begin a thorough examination until all of the hot spots had been eliminated, Miller said.
Employees, residents evacuated
Police evacuated 10 homes and one apartment building near the plant, according to authorities. Employees evacuated the plant safely when the fire first broke out Wednesday, and no firefighters were hurt, Miller said.
The 50 people who were evacuated were allowed to return to their homes Thursday morning, although the Racine hazardous materials response team remained on site to monitor air quality following a minor release of ammonia residue from pipes. Hazardous materials handlers helped secure the area where ammonia and liquid oxygen tanks were stored at the egg processing plant.
Volunteers from the Red Cross were also on scene and on stand-by both days, said Racine Disaster Action Team Coordinator and Public Affairs Officer Bill Simmons. The Red Cross temporarily put up evacuees in local hotels, and offered emotional support for those who were displaced.
“Even though no homes were really damaged, it can still be kind of scary,” Simmons said. “You’re doing your nightly routine, and then you’re suddenly uprooted.”
Local businesses provided support to the many firefighting teams that cycled through the scene in five-hour shifts.
The 1073 Milwaukee Ave. Culver’s delivered 50 or 60 hamburgers and cheeseburgers Wednesday, management said, and the 2088 Milwaukee Ave. Domino’s Pizza also donated two dozen pizzas and eight liters of soda to fire personnel.
“If they’re still going at it tonight, we’ll send over some more,” said Domino’s general manager Correna Anderson Thursday afternoon.
Despite the scale of the destruction, the icy cold and the long hours, Simmons said it was heartening to see the community outreach and support spurred by the disaster.
“It touches your heart to see such a great community outpouring,” he said. “It was a great collaborative effort.”
So far, it is unknown how much the damage might cost Echo Lake Foods, which employs around 300 people; company representatives declined to comment Thursday.
Republican Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos, whose western Racine County district includes Burlington, said in a statement Thursday that he will do “whatever is necessary” to ensure those jobs stay in the Burlington area.
“I want to personally thank the firefighters ... that responded for working to contain the blaze, and keeping it from spreading to other facilities and homes,” Vos said. “I applaud those who are helping their neighbors in the aftermath of this fire. Burlington has come together to support its own, a testament to our strength as a community.”
By the numbers
80+ fire departments responded from across southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois
300+ personnel from various emergency agencies assisted in battling the fire
18 hours spent containing the fire
50 local residents evacuated
300 people employed by Echo Lake Foods