Salinas officials announced at 1pm on Thursday, April 14 that the fire at a Taylor Farms processing facility that broke out Wednesday evening has been contained. The building has been destroyed.

“We did manage to keep the fire contained to the building of origin. That being the Taylor Farms building itself,” said Sam Klemek, Salinas deputy fire chief and incident commander. About 90 percent of the building was destroyed but the fire didn’t spread to adjacent ones.

About 20 firefighters are now cleaning, monitoring and extinguishing small fires for the next 10-12 hours—they are working from the outside using ladder trucks for safety reasons. Klemek said monitoring will continue until Friday.

One of the challenges is the amount of water firefighters have used to control and extinguish the fire. “We don’t want it to flood it with water and have that get out to the environment,” Klemek says. “We really, really are very sparing in our use of water.”

Fire officials say the blaze started when workers were doing maintenance, which included welding. That, plus the wind and dry conditions, is thought to have been enough to ignite the fire. Once the first engine from the Salinas Fire Department arrived at the scene, it escalated to a four-alarm fire that prompted a county-wide aid request. Ultimately around 100 responders showed up on scene—deputies, chiefs, firefighters and paramedics. 

The Taylor Farms facility was getting ready to resume seasonal operations when the fire started at the center of the building. Klemek said a firewall throughout the facility helped to slow the spread of the fire. 

The building that burned down is part of Taylor Farms’ food service division. Darin Salden, senior project manager at Taylor Farms, says the company is working to make sure distribution continues. 

Other areas that were evacuated besides the adjacent ag businesses included neighborhoods within a one-mile radius from the structure fire. A much more extensive area, including roughly 35,000 people and the Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, was under a shelter-in-place order. Alisal Union School District closed its offices on April 14 as well. 

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Today, after the fire was contained, firefighting forces regrouped and monitored the situation using drones. Klemek said all chemicals in the structure have been secured. The fire did reach the anhydrous ammonia tanks, but they were intact. It is commonly used in agriculture as a nitrogen fertilizer for plant growth and mold control. Ammonia inspections are performed every year and businesses have to fulfill state and federal regulations. Michele Vaughn, SFD fire chief, says businesses that use ammonia are required to have containment areas—both primary and secondary—to hold hazardous materials. If chemicals break out of those containment areas, which rarely occurs, they can contaminate soil and groundwater.

There were around 35,000 gallons of ammonia in the building, which is what prompted a firefighting retreat as well as the evacuation and shelter-in-place orders. The railroad tracks were closed and Mayor Kimbley Craig said unhoused individuals received aid and were transferred to shelters.

Ammonia is a highly flammable and irritant chemical that adheres to water or moisture and can travel long distances. This, and weather conditions, raised concerns in East Salinas and along a section of Highway 101. If people get in contact with it, it would affect their eyes, nose and mouth and can cause mild to severe burns. Other chemicals inside the building included chlorine, nitrogen and other agents associated with cooling produce. 

The worst case scenario—an ammonia tank explosion—would create major damage to the one-mile radius that was evacuated. “That could have been devastating for this community,” Vaughn said,  “We are talking big explosions with major damage throughout the community, not just Taylor Farms.”  

The United States Environmental Protection Agency and hazmat teams are investigating the fire and assessing the amount of hazardous materials in the area. They are expected to prepare a report.

Fire officials said there is no indication of foul play and no one was injured. Workers that were in the facility left before the fire started.

Salinas Union High School School District —which canceled classes on Thursday, April 14—will resume classes on Friday and Salinas City Elementary will reopen. Schools remain on spring break until April 19.

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