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Fire Destroys Millions of Pounds of Meat and Butter

May 4, 1991

MADISON, Wis. (AP) _ A fire destroyed millions of pounds of food at a storage company, caused the temporary evacuation of 3,000 residents and presented fire officials with thorny environmental problems as it burned for a second day Saturday.

The fire started Friday afternoon at the Central Storage and Warehouse Co., a complex the size of two football fields that stored 10 million to 15 million pounds of government surplus butter. It took about 20 hours to contain the blaze.

Melted butter and lard that streamed from the buildings were collected in hundreds of feet of dikes hastily built by city crews.

Had the goo reached a nearby lake and creek, it would have used up the available oxygen, threatening wildlife and ruining a recent $1 million cleanup in the watershed, said David Marshall, a water resources biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

″Very, very little got into the creek,″ said Gregory Matthews of the Natural Resources department. ″They kept the environmental impacts to an absolute minimum.″

In all, more than 50 million pounds of food may have been destroyed. The buildings stored butter and cheese, Ocean Spray cranberries and what one employee described as ″millions and millions of hot dogs.″

Oscar Mayer Foods Corp. stored 4 million pounds of sausages, and UW Provisions Co., a commercial meat supplier, stored ground beef and other products.

Fire Capt. Jerry Anderson said the cause of the fire won’t be known until investigators can enter the buildings, and that won’t be possible until the fire is extinguised.

Up to 3,000 residents within a half-mile of the complex on the city’s east side were evacuated during the night when firefighters feared the blaze might spread to nearby ammonia tanks.

The order was rescinded two hours later, but hundreds spent the night at a high school.

Madison East District Fire Chief Ronald F. Schmelzer said the danger of the fire spreading finally abated late Saturday morning.

Still, thick black smoke continued to belch hundreds of feet into the air and filled the neighborhood with a stench akin to burning garbage.

″It’s contained (but) it could smoulder until Wednesday,″ Schmelzer said.

Several firefighters received minor injuries fighting the blaze. About 25 of the company’s 35 workers were in the warehouse when the fire broke out, but all escaped without injury.

Tom Fitzgerald, executive vice president of Central Storage, said the two destroyed warehouses were worth $10 million to $15 million, and their contents were worth ″tens and tens of millions.″

After insurance matters are worked out, the company will rebuild, said President Kenneth Williams.

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