A view of the Penobscot McCrum fire from the nearby footbridge. Credit: Courtesy of Jim Clark

An early morning fire swept through the Penobscot McCrum processing plant in Belfast, destroying the facility. 

Officials said that the call came a little after 2 a.m. It took more than seven hours to knock down the fire though firefighters continued to try to fully extinguish the smoldering debris well into the afternoon.

A plume of smoke from the Penobscot McCrum factory is visible for miles.

“At this time it is believed the fire was started by one of the large fryolator machines. Local fire crews are still fighting the fire and are having difficulty due to the metal siding/roofing,” said Shannon Moss, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

The enormous blaze scorched and buckled the metal roof of the potato factory located on the Belfast waterfront, at the foot of Pierce Street. Tall plumes of black, white and gray smoke billowed into the sky above the burning factory.

The fire and the potential for toxic smoke caused the closure of schools in RSU 71, including Belfast Area High School, which is located less than a mile from the potato factory. Troy Howard Middle School was used as an evacuation center for the residents of Harbor Hill Nursing Home, located just across the Passagassawakeag River from the fire. 

Firefighters attacked the fire from all directions — including above — to bring it under control. An excavator was also brought in to knock down part of the building.

Clockwise from left: Fire crews pour water on the burning building at the Penobscot McCrum facility in Belfast; Firefighters stand on a hillside fighting the blaze; Fire crews pour water on the burning building. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Despite the magnitude of the fire, there were no serious injuries or fatalities, city officials said.

The Waldo County Emergency Management Agency advised residents to shelter in place, the City of Belfast said in a message posted at about 8 a.m. That was lifted just after 10am. 

Officials also shut down the Route 1 bridge for part of the morning, but by 9 a.m., it reopened to traffic. 

Concerns of burning chemicals or a potential explosion led one Belfast resident to hand out masks to bystanders earlier in the morning.

Emilie Gruchow, who lives by the hospital and is training to join a search and rescue team, woke up to a chemical smell around 2:30 a.m. 

“It was pretty faint,” she said, adding that she learned about the fire from social media. “I decided to come by to help make sure people in the nearby area were OK.”

Just after 8 a.m. on Thursday, March 24, flames were beginning to die down at the Penobscot McCrum factory in Belfast, but the billowing clouds of smoke could be seen for miles. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Gruchow said she had handed out about 10 masks to those close to the fire. 

Jay McCrum, the owner of the business, hugged an emotional employee who came up to him in a parking lot overlooking the fire. “We’re going to figure this out,” he told her.

A seven or eight person cleaning crew was working when the fire broke out, and all were able to safely evacuate, he said. 

“I’m doing good because everybody is safe,” McCrum said. “And all the fire departments have been phenomenal.”

McCrum said he was able to get the Belfast fire chief a floor plan of the building, so that the firefighters would be better informed about the locations of the ammonia tanks and other substances.

Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders was on the scene Thursday morning, where he said he would remain all day. 

A view of Penobscot McCrum fire from the footbridge. Credit: Courtesy of Jim Clark

“We’re just glad everyone right now is safe,” Sanders said. 

The ammonia tanks located on the property were a major concern, according to Sanders, whose voice cracked when talking about the response of the Belfast Fire Department and other firefighters. 

“These people mean a lot to me, so. They’re good people, and they’ve been battling it since what, 2 a.m.. So I think the best thing we novices can do right now is stay the hell out of the way and pray to God the tanks don’t blow.”

Firefighters from the Belfast Fire Department were joined by those from Belmont, Camden, Northport, Morrill, Liberty, Lincolnville, Searsmont, Searsport, West Frankfort and other communities to battle the blaze. Officials from CMP and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection are also at the fire scene.

Investigators with the State Fire Marshal’s office are investigating and expected to continue processing the scene on Friday, Moss said.

This isn’t the first time that a facility connected with the potato processing plant has had a fire. In 2019, the office building was destroyed

The Penobscot McCrum company was created in 2004 after the McCrum family bought the assets of Penobscot Frozen Foods. About 138 people work at the factory, which processes potatoes into baked and mashed potato products as well as wedges and potato skins. The company later expanded operations beyond Belfast.

McCrum said that it was “really hard” to think about next steps for the company’s Belfast operation, but it was going to happen. 

“We’re going to get together with our team, and figure out how we put it back together,” he said. 

Sanders said he spoke with another Belfast City Councilor briefly Thursday morning about potentially using a city financial assistance fund to help workers who might be impacted by the fire. Nothing definitive has been decided yet, though.

Gov. Janet Mills visited Belfast Thursday afternoon, after the fire was largely quelled, to meet with Penobscot McCrum owner Jay McCrum, his family members, Belfast City Manager Erin Herbig and others. Mills said that when she learned of the fire she was shocked, and wanted to do something to help. 

“We want to help them rebuild as soon as possible,” she said Thursday afternoon, telling McCrum his company has always made a good product. “We don’t want to take it out of state to be processed.” 

Mills said the state would send its rapid response team to help workers, and then work to help Penobscot McCrum find funding opportunities. 

“We want them to stay here,” she said.

BDN editor Sarah Walker Caron contributed to this report.