A massive fire that destroyed a South Jersey food warehouse has finally been contained, more than a day after it broke out.
The fire broke out at the Dietz & Watson cold storage facility on Cooperstown Road in Delanco, Burlington County, N.J. around 1:30 p.m. Sunday and caused the roof, lined with thousands of solar panels, to collapse within hours. Thick, black smoke could be seen billowing from the facility miles away.
“It’s just an intense fire,” said Delanco Fire Chief Ron Holt. “It’s going to take some time, and we don’t know what it’s going to do."
By Monday morning, the blaze continued to burn as water issues, the threat of electrocution and other factors hindered firefighting efforts. Crews began to arrive before 9 a.m. While fire officials were finally able to contain the blaze early Monday evening, they also say it will likely continue to smolder for the next few days.
More than 200 firefighters from Burlington, Mercer, Gloucester, Camden and Atlantic Counties were brought to the distribution center which is about 300,000 square feet -- roughly the size of five football fields.
SOLAR PANELS POSE HAZARD
Firefighters had to pull back at some points because the fully-charged solar panels posed the risk of electrocution.
"With all that power and energy up there, I can't jeopardize a guy’s life for that,” said Holt.
Officials say the fire was focused between the trusses and solar panels on the roof. There have been two explosions so far and at least one wall collapsed.
In 2010, the company installed more than 7,000 solar power modules, which officials claimed would reduce the facility's energy use by nearly 20 percent. Buildings with solar power systems “can present a variety of significant hazards" for firefighters including poor air quality and electrocution, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
The Burlington County hazmat team was called to the scene to test the air quality and concluded that there is no hazard at this time. However, residents received a reverse 911 message from the Beverly and Edgewater Park Joint Office of Emergency Management which warned them to stay inside their homes, close their windows and avoid breathing in the smoke.
“Unless you’re standing right there and breathing, it's dissipating before it hits ground,” said Chief Holt. “That's why we called the health department and hazmat team... (If they say close your window) that's their expertise, that's what I go with.”
No residents were evacuated.
Around 5 p.m. Sunday, fire officials were concerned that the water and foam used to fight the blaze would cause the roof to collapse and called all firefighters out of the building as a precaution.
Two firefighters suffered minor injuries including Chief Holt who broke his foot.
“If the building collapses, it collapses…it can be replaced. I’m not sending a man in to lose a life," said Holt.
DRAINING THE PUMPS
The amount of water needed to douse the flames drained pumps, forcing crews to bring in extra from other areas.
Trucked-in water is being dumped into large temporary pools, which are then connected to hoses and sent spraying on the building.
The Camden Fire Boat crew also responded to the scene to help stretch a water pipeline from the Rancocas Creek.
New Jersey American Water asked customers in Edgewater Park, Beverley, and Delanco to limit their water usage as crews battle the blaze.
"Due to the large volumes of water being used by firefighters to tackle the six-alarm blaze, we ask that customers restrict their home water usage until such time as the fire is successfully brought under control. Additionally, you may experience periods of low pressure as we try to direct as much water to the firefighting efforts as possible,” according to Communications Director Peter Eschbach.
“That’s major because (without water) you are not putting the fire out,” said Holt.
ONLY MINOR INJURIES
The Delanco Riverside Bridge was closed around 7 p.m. Officials did not indicate when it would reopen.
Sandy Iwanicki, who lives near the warehouse, said she initially thought a plane had crashed.
“It looked to me like the kind of scene you would see if a plane crashed the black smoke was immense it was amazing,” said Iwanicki.
Dietz & Watson officials released a statement on their website shortly after the blaze.
"Dietz & Watson suffered a setback to its Delanco Distribution center over the Labor Day Weekend. Other distribution centers, as well as all production facilities, were unaffected by this event. At this time, we are assessing the immediate needs of our customers; business remains as usual. The Dietz & Watson Family appreciates all of the support it has received during this time, and is thankful that no one sustained any injury. Further, the company appreciates the efforts of all emergency services," according to the statement.
There is no word at this time on how the fire will effect production at the facility or the impact it will have in your local grocery store. Louis Eni, Dietz & Watson CEO, claims the prices on the grocery store won't be going up due to the fire however. Dietz & Watson employs more than 130 workers at the facility.
As for the impact on Delanco, the mayor called the fire a loss for the town.
“This is a loss for Delanco, for all the employees, the economy and what have you… we ‘re going to take care of the firefighters and I just want to thank them all,” said Mayor Kate Fitzpatrick.
Officials say the facility was not operating Sunday. Two security guards were working outside the building.
The company, founded in 1939, opened the center in 2007. It is their main distribution center. They also have processing facilities in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Corfu, New York.
The cause of the fire likely won't be known until the blaze is extinguished and investigators can get inside.