At 1:15 a.m., a fire tore through Vitalix, causing explosions and collapses, ultimately leveling the facility and causing millions of dollars of damage.
“I will term this up in one word: devastating,” said Alliance Fire Department Chief Troy Shoemaker. “This is not only devastating to Vitalix as a company, this is devastating to Alliance when it comes to employment. This manufacturing facility is a total loss. I can’t even put a dollar amount on it.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation, Shoemaker said, noting a fire marshal from Gibbon was on scene at the fire to determine the cause. Shoemaker explained that when firefighters arrived on scene, the facility was engulfed in flames.
“Upon my arrival, we had the north portion of the Vitalix facility on the ground,” said Shoemaker. “We had multiple explosions: some small, some not so small. There was a lot of forklift operations with propane. There were compressed cylinders in there.
“Even sometimes the tub that they have their feed supplement in, when it got hot enough, it would actually pop the feed supplement right out of the cup straight up in the air. We had a significant amount of explosions upon our arrival,” Shoemaker said.
The fire was fueled, in large part, by sugar in the form of molasses, Shoemaker explained. He said the amount of molasses on scene added to the fire load.
One challenge the firefighters faced was a shortage of water at the location. Alliance Fire Department called for mutual aid from Hemingford Fire Department and Heart of the Hills Fire Department to help transport water to battle the blaze.
“We don’t have a dedicated water source out here at the airport, unlike in town where we have a good hydrant system. So, we had to shuttle water in. When that happens, we had three quarters to most of the building fully involved when we first arrived.
“All those BTUs (British thermal units) need a lot of water to, one, control, two, to extinguish. We were behind the eight ball, so to speak. It took us a little while to get a successful water shuttle coming in. This was a significant fire,” Shoemaker said.
Another obstacle for the firefighters to overcome was the scale of the facility and structural stability issues..
“It’s a huge footprint,” said Shoemaker. “Our biggest concern right now is the deep-seated fire inside the building where we can’t really, necessarily, reach. Metal, when it gets so hot, it weakens. We’ve got structural stability issues where we’re not allowing anyone to go in yet. We’re putting water on the hotspots from the exterior. That’s why it’s going to take us a while. The warehouse, I think, was pretty full with product, so we had a pretty heavy fire load.”
Firefighters remained on scene through the afternoon into early Saturday morning to monitor hotspots and to prevent them from flaring up.
No one was inside the facility when the fire started, Shoemaker said, and there were no injuries reported by emergency responders.
“Fortunately, they didn’t have a night shift. That was one of my concerns because I know sometimes during their processing season, they have an overnight shift. It took us a little bit to confirm that, because I knew that we had that possibility. Fortunately we don’t have any injuries to Vitalix employees and we don’t have any injuries to firefighters at this point,” Shoemaker said.
As a result of the fire and the rising smoke, the first flight on Friday morning at the Alliance Airport was cancelled. However, they allowed the 10 a.m. flight to arrive.
“With the volume of fire and smoke, we didn’t need anyone traveling. We used the road pretty heavily there for a while,” Shoemaker said.
Shoemaker said this is a once-in-a-lifetime fire, noting in Alliance there are not many fires of that scale.
“I’ve been telling guys that some of them will be considering this a fire of a lifetime in Alliance,” said Shoemaker. “Fortunately, we don’t have many devastating fires of this nature, but it’s always a matter of when. To be quite honest, this is the one I wish wouldn’t have happened. This is the one that, at some point, the potential was there. We knew that if we had anything at the airport, the water source was always going to be an issue for us, and it played out that the water source was an issue.”