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Blazes Strike Even Plants That Are Careful About Fire Safety
Not all fires are preventable, but planning for safety can help reduce risk. Learn from other plants that have had to deal with life after a fire.

By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 6/1/2003

(Editorís Note: This is part one of a two-part series of articles on fires at pallet companies; part two is scheduled to be published in July issue.)

It was the end of an ordinary day for Jim Kesting, vice president of Pallet Logistics Management, a pallet recycling business in St. Louis. He and his wife activated the companyís security system, closed the office, and left for home around 5:20 p.m.

At home later that February evening, Jim poured himself a glass of wine, but he didnít get a chance to enjoy it. "We got a call around 6:15 p.m," he said. Less than hour after leaving the office, his plant was engulfed in flames.

The companyís alarm system had been triggered, and police were subsequently dispatched to investigate. When police arrived at the companyís address, officers saw flames and smoke coming from the main plant, a 400-foot-long building. Police immediately notified fire officials. The companyís offices, located at the front of the building, also serve a nearby affiliated pallet manufacturing company, Madison County Wood Products.

The companyís operations normally stop at 3:30 p.m. After quitting time, a supervisor and another employee used forklifts to move pallets to work benches so they would be in place for the next morning. They were finished about 4:45 p.m. There was no sign of fire when they were finished nor a short time later when Jim and his wife locked up and left.

Nevertheless, the fire was "rip-roaring" by the time firefighters arrived about 20 minutes after being summoned by police, said Jim. "It tells me that something was happening about the time my guys were setting up tables. What caused it we donít know."

The fire at Pallet Logistics Management was a seven alarm blaze. About 100 firefighters responded. It took about an hour before the fire was under control.

A number of other pallet companies have suffered major fires in recent years. The list includes Rapid Pallet in Jermyn Penn., Pacific Pallet in Aldergrove British Columbia, AAA Pallet in Oklahoma City, Okla., BC Wood Products in Richmond, Va., and Commercial Lumber in Indio, Calif.

In the greater St. Louis area, four pallet companies have been hit by fire in the past two years, according to Jim, including Missouri Recycling and Preferred Pallets. Missouri Recycling performed a lot of on-site pallet recycling for Chrysler Corp., and about 10 acres of pallets on Chryslerís property caught fire, Jim estimated. "They fought that for three or four days."

The fires often have been unrelated to the pallet companyís operations. Several have been sparked by power company mishaps. At Commercial Lumber, for example, a transformer on a utility pole exploded and burst into flames, and the pole subsequently fell into the companyís yard. The company was in compliance with fire regulations, according to Ray Gutierrez of Commercial Lumber, and saw no need afterward to make any changes. "We havenít changed anything," he said.

A somewhat similar situation occurred at BC Wood Products. High winds caused a power outage. When electricity was restored later, the company experienced a tremendous power surge that sparked a fire. "It was a freak fire," said Richard Barrett of BC Wood Products. "It was one of those things that happens that no one knows why."

Arson is another cause over which a pallet company or other business has no control and was the case at Rapid Pallet. The company employs a security guard who is on duty after the plant closes and makes rounds every 15 minutes. He sighted the fire while it was still in its early stages and reported it to fire officials, but firefighters were hindered by lower water pressure in hydrant lines. "There were 16 hydrants they couldnít get water out of, and we even had one on our property," said Ron Whitiak of Rapid Pallet. "They just couldnít get water to us fast enough."

Ron firmly believes in having after-hours security personnel on site. A watchman serves several useful functions, he explained. "When our trucks leave or come in at night, there is a two-fold purpose," he said. "If someone gets hurt, there is someone here to help, and it eliminates vandalism. I think it is a cheap investment." He uses a company employee instead of hiring a security company.

Like the other pallet companies that suffered fires, Pallet Logistics Management seemed to be doing things right. "We are on a 12 acre yard here," said Jim, "all asphalt and concrete. And when they came in and investigated us, they said we were the cleanest pallet yard they had ever seen. We have always prided ourselves to that effect."

After the fire, investigators initially scrutinized the companyís electrical system, beginning with the electrical panel and extending throughout the plant. They found nothing amiss.

"Everything we told them was true," Jim said. "Our band saw and our trim saw in the back work on a plug-in system. Our guys unplug those every night, and they found no evidence those things had been plugged in."

The cause of the fire has not been determined, but there are some likely candidates. One possibility is that it was caused by a cigarette. "These guys smoke, but they normally smoke in the lunch area," Jim said. Smoking is not allowed in the plant itself.

Another possible cause is a hot nail. "Weíve had situations where a hot nail will fall out of a dismantler into sawdust and cause smoldering," said Jim. Since those instances, the company has put a strong emphasis on good plant housekeeping to keep the building clean and control sawdust.

AAA Pallet also experienced problems in the past with minor fires sparked by hot nails. In AAA Palletís case, the hot nails were in boxes containing end cuts of recycled lumber that is trimmed to length. "Make sure the end cut boxes are taken out of the building," said AAA president Sean Crowe, "and there is not excess lumber in the building just in case there ever is a fire. My basic approach is general housekeeping, and it is just common sense." A fire at AAA last fall was caused by an electric motor that ignited.

Cigarettes were identified as the likely cause of a large blaze at Pacific Pallet last summer that caused an estimated $5 million in damage to the company and surrounding businesses. Before the fire occurred, workers smelled smoke in a portion of the companyís property that was sublet to a tenant.

"People say accidental but we say preventable," said assistant fire chief Mike Helmer. "It should never have happened. It was reckless. You work in a mill, put cigarette butts in a container."

Many fires are caused by careless smoking, according to Gordon Hughes, executive general manager of the Canadian Wood Pallet and Container Association. He should know. Gordon served 31 years as a firefighter for Toronto until retiring this year as a district fire chief.

"Your best plan for smokers is to give them an area that has no paper and is out of the wind so that lighted smoking articles are less likely to be blown to paper or dry grass," Gordon said. He also suggested that the use of the smoking area should be promoted, making it as attractive as possible. The smoking area should have large bins of water or wet sand to extinguish cigarettes.

Gordon has written an industrial fire safety manual for pallet businesses that has been successfully implemented by many companies. "The industrial safety plan encompasses all aspects of fire safety and how to become an integral part of the community rather than a delinquent neighbor," he said.

Proper planning for pallet storage and inventory is one aspect of the manual. For example, pallets should be kept at a minimum distance from buildings and property lines, allowing access for fire trucks. Open areas may be required between places where pallets are stored.

It is also very important to have an evacuation plan in case of fire, said Gordon. "Just a simple walk-through can save lives," he said. Local fire officials can help with making an evacuation plan. "Take them!" Gordon said. "He is the boss when it comes to fire safety."

Fires at pallet plants have been caused by arson set by disgruntled employees, unqualified persons filling propane tanks for forklift trucks, and faulty electrical work performed by a person who is not qualified, Gordon added.

Other fires at pallet companies have been caused by controlled burns of scrap wood that got out of hand or cutting torches. "I think a lot of fires that end up happening are caused in our industry by the cutting torch," Jim said, who is considering installing a fire suppression system and smoke and heat detectors when his plant is rebuilt. Hot metal may fall into sawdust and eventually ignite. These kind of hazards may be minimized by good housekeeping and an adequate fire watch.

Not all fires are preventable, but planning for fire safety can reduce the risk.

(Editorís Note: Part two, to be authored by Gordon Hughes, will focus in more detail on what pallet companies can do to prevent fires from occurring and spreading at their plants.)

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