On Sept. 16, about 100 people clocked out for the day at Phillips Farms cold storage and packing facility in Ivanhoe. When they woke up the following morning, they found out the facility had burned down and their jobs reduced to ashes.
Shortly after 1 a.m. on Sept. 17, Tulare County Fire Department was dispatched to an industrial fire at Phillips Farms at 33771 Road 156 in Ivanhoe. Firefighters arrived to find plastic bins and several commercial vehicles engulfed in flames on the north portion of the building. But when firefighters went to get water from the hydrants, nothing came out. TCFD called in water tenders from other areas including two Tulare County units from Lindsay and Lemon Cove as well as one water tender from OrangeFire District. Firefighters were delayed for approximately one hour as firefighters had to tap into an agriculture well north of the property and run a line to fire units for water supply. By the time water was fully available the fire had spread into the back of the building near the propane tanks.
Two hours into battling the blaze, firefighters noticed two 500-gallon propane tanks venting from the extreme heat. Moments before a tank exploded, fire personnel from the Visalia Fire Department and Tulare County quickly cut lines, leaving their equipment on the ground as they pulled personnel and their engines out of harm’s way. One of the two large propane tanks located at the back of the facility exploded sending a fireball 60 to 80 feet into the air. Firefighters on scene reported that the fire ball seemed to expand and consume the sky above them. The force of the explosion sent pieces of the tank flying with one half landing more than 100 yards away and the other traveling nearly a quarter mile into an orange grove where it demolished three trees. A large piece of steel from the building shot across the sky and wrapped around a nearby wind machine, while the rear wall of the cold storage building collapsed. It took firefighters another three hours to gain complete control of the blaze which was now nearly a three alarm fire.
By sunrise Wednesday morning, firefighters had most of all the fire extinguished except for the northeast portion of the cold storage, which was full of kiwi, quince, Asian pears and plums as Phillips Farms was in the middle of harvest. When the smoke cleared, allowing everyone to see what was left, the scene resembled a war zone full of burned out trucks and trailers among twisted steel beams and smoldering fruit.
Although Tulare County Fire Division Chief Charlie Norman reported the fire was under investigation and no official estimate of damages were available at the time, several Phillips Farms employees and management stated the fruit loss alone would be estimated at more than $1 million.
Doug Phillips, owner of Phillips Farms, stated that he has owned the facility for almost 40 years. He was surprised at how fast the fire moved.
“I just couldn’t believe it could become that powerful and destroy so much so quickly,” he said.
Phillips initially thought that the fire would be contained outside but it quickly spread into the facility. He said that the facility and all its contents were insured so he was more worried about his employees being without a job during the harvest season and the upcoming holidays. Some of the employees that work for this facility had been employed here for over 30 years. Despite the fire Phillips was still seen handing paychecks out to his employees as they showed up to see what had happened. With the facility and contents a total loss many of the near 100 now unemployed workers will have to try and find new jobs in mid harvest, this may be taxing on their families as Phillips Farms was one of the largest employers in the Ivanhoe area.
With most of the employees living in the Ivanhoe area this fire will be strenuous on the entire community’s bottom dollar. In an already tight economy with jobs as scarce as water in the Central Valley, Phillips feared the effects may be felt longer than many anticipate. Everyone from the unemployed worker to the local grocery store will feel the effects of this tragedy as workers will no longer have extra income to spend at local businesses.
Investigators were on scene throughout the day Wednesday and plan to question Phillips drivers about what they saw and try to determine if the trucks or other machinery might have been the cause of the fire. They will also be trying to determine why the two fire hydrants were not working properly.
Battalion Chief Jeff Newton said that Phillips Farms is responsible for the up keep and maintenance on those fire hydrants. Newton later said that neither hydrant worked and investigators were unclear as to why.
Firefighters from Farmersville, Visalia, Cal-Fire and Orange Cove were called in to help Tulare County Fire personnel from as far away as Tulare and Lindsay Battle this raging inferno. In all over 50 firefighters were on scene with nearly 20 engines and various other fire apparatus on scene throughout the firefight.
As of nightfall Wednesday evening smoke was still seen coming from the scene as the building still smoldered and would likely do so throughout the next day.