Chemical warehouse fires present significant challenges to first responders, communities, hazmat teams, enforcement agencies, facility owners, employees and anyone else impacted by the business. They also present significant challenges to safety professionals responsible for the operation. On November 21, 2009 the farm supply facility in Malta, Montana owned by CHS Inc. burned down. The fire was discovered at approximately 1:30 in the morning and burned intensely for about 3 hours. As the fire department worked to control the fire, employees of the facility and members of the community built an earthen berm around the facility to contain the fire-water and any chemicals that might be released. I received my first notice of the fire at 5 am Saturday morning at my house in Prescott, WI. The call came from the General Manager of the business unit and he told me they had a fire, the warehouse and office were completely gone but the fire was under control. He also explained that they had constructed a dike to keep all the contaminated runoff on site and away from the Milk River, which was located 1500 feet to the northwest of the property line. Nothing had left the site. The manager still had issues to deal with on-site and we ended the call. My next move was to implement our crisis management process, a lot of people need to know what is going on. As you will learn, one mistake in this process can cost you dearly, and not having enough information available to you can easily lead to mistakes.
The CHS Inc. facility in Malta, Montana was purchased from a privately owned farm supply business in 2007. Most of the employees of that business came to work for CHS Inc. The Malta location became a part of CHS Inc.'s business unit that did business as the Milk River Cooperative with its main office in Chinook, MT. The facility exists to provide fertilizer, pesticides, feed and service to farmers and ranchers in the area. At the time of the fire, the inventory in the facility was near a season low with new products for next spring just starting to arrive.