Fire crews pour water on the burning building at the Penobscot McCrum facility in Belfast. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — New details about the blaze that consumed the Penobscot McCrum potato processing plant in Belfast last month show how an unusual combination of circumstances made the quick moving fire hard to fight.

The first call about the fire came in at about 2 a.m. on March 24, and firefighters were on the scene within minutes. But the facility had been burning for up to an hour by then, the state fire marshal determined. By the time crews arrived, heavy fire was coming out of the building, Belfast’s fire chief said.

Despite the quick response by firefighters, the fire couldn’t be contained, and it ultimately destroyed the potato processing plant.

Soon after they arrived, Belfast Fire Chief Patrick Richards and two other firefighters put on air packs and went inside to try and put it out. But the fire was above them and hard to reach, burning in the void space between the metal roof and the heavy concrete ceiling.

As the chief ventured to the control room to shut off conveyor belts and other machinery, he saw that the fire had taken hold in the factory’s system of pipe chases.  

“It sounded like a jet plane throughout the building,” Richards told Belfast City Councilors at last week’s regular meeting. “It was at that point that I knew we had a large fire on hand.”

The chief radioed to ask other departments for help. Then he worked to isolate the fuel stored at the building, including about 9,000 gallons of liquified propane. Crews continued to fight the fire from inside the building for a couple of hours until they were pulled out for their own safety.

After that, firefighters used tall ladder trucks and hoses to spray large amounts of water, as much as 10,000 to 15,000 gallons per minute, on the fire from outside. They concentrated on the factory’s refrigeration room, where 12,000 pounds of ammonia and a large portion of liquified propane were stored.

Ammonia is highly toxic and an inhalation hazard. Although it is not highly flammable, ammonia leaks can be deadly. Fortunately, Richards said, a concrete masonry wall separated the fire from the refrigeration room.  

“That was holding the heat and everything away from those ammonia tanks,” he said.

As the sun rose, and the community began to wake up, Richards and other fire chiefs on scene considered worst case scenarios and decided to close both Belfast Area High School and the Belfast Center, an office building close to the McCrum facility.  

After Dale Rowley, the director of the Waldo County Emergency Management Agency, arrived just before 7 a.m., the officials discussed placing a shelter in place advisory on the area closest to the factory.  

Richards said that although the fire was massive, the people who were most at risk from any compromise to the ammonia system were the first responders.

“At this point, we really don’t have a hazmat incident. There’s no spill. There’s no leak,” the chief said. “The tanks were never at a dangerous heat level where rupture was even possible. So how much pandamonium do we create … If something does erupt here, you’re better off sheltering in place, for those people right in the vicinity.”

Ultimately, officials did issue a shelter in place advisory at 8:20 a.m., sending it to people within a half-mile radius of the fire via a wireless emergency alert to cellphones.

The alert system is provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Rowley said, and it’s only been used twice in the state of Maine. The first time was at the end of January, when there was a 911 outage in Waldo County. The second time was during the Penobscot McCrum fire.

Other issues complicated the firefighting efforts too. At about 9 a.m., fire crews ran into a low water supply problem. They had drained the city’s water tanks from 60 feet of water to close to 25 feet, and using much more would have caused a “huge, huge issue” for the city, Richards said.  

“We had to start conserving water and start thinking about what our next steps would be,” Richards said. “But I believe at that point, we were past the most critical moments in that incident.”

The 84,000 square foot factory itself also made fighting the fire more challenging. The original wood-framed construction was built in 1908, and had been added on to many times over the years. At some point, two layers of steel roofing were also installed.

“That makes it real, real difficult to get water into the places where you need to,” Richards said.

The factory was also full of cardboard packaging and layers of styrofoam that had been saturated for years with fry oil, potato residue and more, he said.

“There was a huge fire load in there,” the chief said.

Despite that, the firefighters made progress. Just before 10 a.m., an “all clear” alert was sent to cellphones within the surrounding area, letting people know that the Penobscot McCrum fire was under control. The fire continued to smolder for well over a day.

But the alerts were somewhat problematic, councilors said. Not everyone in the targeted radius received them, and some outside of it did.

“The one issue that has come up over and over again, and which I think needs to be addressed at greater detail going forward, is the confusion over the emergency notifications,” Councilor Neal Harkness said.

People who live close to the factory also wondered why the ammonia siren did not go off. Harkness said that the ammonia siren is meant for ammonia leaks, which didn’t occur that day.  

“The fact that we didn’t hear the siren is a triumph and not a problem,” he said.

But Councilor Mike Hurley wasn’t so sure it was a positive sign.

“I’m going to be amazed if we find out that there’s a wire [to the siren] that actually survived,” he said.  

The cause of the fire could not be determined because of the extensive damage, but it was ruled accidental, according to the fire marshal’s office. No one was injured fighting the fire.

Belfast City Manager Erin Herbig said that her office was focused on communications that day, alerting councilors about the fire just before 7:30 a.m. She and her staff also kept the city’s social media and webpage updated throughout the day and spoke to residents, especially after the first shelter in place alert went out.

“All the phones were ringing off the hook here,” she said.

Still, some councilors said they would have liked to have seen more of a concerted effort to communicate with the public. Councilor Paul Dean pointed out that people who don’t have cellphones, like him, won’t receive wireless emergency alerts.

“A lot of people had questions and they had no place to go to find the answers,” he said.

Bonneville, who did not receive either alert on her cellphone, agreed.

“Obviously the main concern was to put the fire out. But the communication, in my mind, was just subpar,” she said. “I heard from a lot of people that they just didn’t know what to do. To them, there was pandemonium, uncertainty [and] mixed messages.”