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Fire destroys Wilbur-Ellis fertilizer plant

by REBECCA PETTINGILL
Staff Writer | October 23, 2022 6:51 PM

MOSES LAKE - Sunday afternoon a building at the Wilbur-Ellis fertilizer and blending facility, located at 14903 Road 1.3 Southeast, caught fire and burned to the ground.

“This facility is not very old and they built it specifically to where it is 100% wood construction so that it doesn’t have any corrosion issues with the fertilizer,” said Grant County Fire District 5 Battalion Chief Robert Horst. “Fertilizer will corrode metal so they built it 100% wood so that's why it went (up in flames) so fast and so quick. One, because of all of the fertilizer but two, because of being 100% wood construction.”

Grant County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Kyle Foreman said a call about black smoke coming from the elevator was placed at about 3:15 p.m.

When responders arrived on scene the building was already fully engulfed.

“When I was at (State Route) 17 and Interstate-90, I could already see the flames through the roof,” said Horst.

A responding firefighter witnessed a flash come from inside the burning building, Foreman said, leading to a concern related to an explosion from the facility. After a short time, it was determined that the explosion risk was no longer a likely scenario.

By 5:15 p.m. the building had collapsed except for the metal elevator on the side of the structure.

“The hazard now – there is no fire hazard at this point – the biggest hazard at this point is going to be the toxic smoke and all of this water,” Horst said. “The more water we put on it to try to put out the fire, the more fertilizer washes into the ground.”

The smoke coming from the few flames along with ash, as well as the water covering the ground and ditch near the rubble of the building were a concern, he said. The district ceased its efforts to put more water on the fire and allowed the flames to burn themselves out in order to avoid chemicals from the fertilizer facility from leaching into the ground.

Foreman and Horst said there was a skeleton fire crew on scene overnight keeping an eye on the remaining flames and moving forward Wilbur-Ellis would be managing the site security from there.

Horst said the fire marshal came out Monday afternoon and said Wednesday would probably be the soonest he could get into the facility and look to try to determine a cause.

While there are still some flames and smoldering, the smoke coming off the facility is the primary concern as it is still smoking as of Monday afternoon, sources said.

Horst said the Department of Ecology should be here Monday evening for air sampling to verify if everything is okay with smoke as it is or if the fire district needs to mitigate it with more water.

The plant, about three miles southeast of Moses Lake, did not have any employees working and no firefighters were injured fighting the blaze.

Foreman said, due to the wind carrying the smoke northeast, they advised those within a mile to go inside, shut doors and windows and turn off any outside air intakes. Those who have respiratory issues should consider basic protective measures such as wearing a mask.

In response to the smoke, the Grant County Health District issued a health advisory also encouraging residents northeast of the fire, as the wind was blowing Monday afternoon, to stay indoors and wear a mask when going outside because the smoke drifting from the fire may contain noxious chemicals which can irritate eyes, nose, throat, airways, and lungs.

The Columbia Basin Herald reached out to Wilbur-Ellis for comment but did not hear back from their representative in time for publication. This story will be updated online with any commentary from the company if they choose to get back with us.

Rebecca Pettingill may be reached at rpettingill@columbiabasinherald.com.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated with additional information as of Monday afternoon.

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REBECCA PETTINGILL/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD

Grant County Public Information Officer Kyle Forman, right, speaks with Grant County Fire District Battalion Chief Robert Horst, middle, and another GCFD5 firefighter as smoke billows from the fire at the Wilbur-Ellis plant.

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COURTESY PHOTO/JAY WELCH

Smoke Billows from the Wilbur-Ellis fertilizer and blending facility southeast of Moses Lake on Sunday. Firefighting crews eventually stopped adding water to the blaze after it became unsalvageable and concern for washing excessive amounts of fertilizer and chemicals into the ground became the larger concern.

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COURTESY PHOTO/JAY WELCH

Columbia Basin Herald reader Jay Welch provided this photo of smoke coming off of the Wilbur-Ellis fertilizer plant Sunday. Residents nearby were advised to remain inside and close of sources of air from outside the home until the fire was under control.

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