Inferno consumes old Del Monte packinghouse in downtown Fresno

The Fresno BeeMay 17, 2014 

A former packinghouse-turned-eyesore in downtown Fresno burned for hours on Saturday, the towering columns of smoke visible from as far away as Sanger.

More than 60 firefighters responded to the three-alarm blaze at the old Del Monte building on G Street, between Tulare and Kern streets.

The north section eventually turned into a pile of fiery rubble. The middle section burned for several hours in the early afternoon but, apparently containing less combustible fuel than its neighbor, remained standing. The south section with exterior walls of metal sheeting appeared untouched by the flames.

Fire officials early in the blaze said they knew of no one inside the building. They said the fire's cause is unknown, but added that the department has responded in recent months to fires in the building started by transients.

Chief Kerri Donis said about 20 off-duty firefighters were called in to maintain service levels. The department was tested at the height of the fire by another two-alarm blaze south of downtown, spokesman Koby Johns said. He said the Clovis Fire Department and CalFire helped fight that blaze.

"Our firefighters fight a lot of fire in this city," Donis said. "This is what we do at least one to two times every day. Our firefighters are tremendous."

The block-long structure is a familiar sight to anyone attending a ballgame at nearby Chukchansi Park, grabbing a ride at the Greyhound bus depot a block away or traveling between the center of downtown and Chinatown.

The plant had three connected sections totaling 112,000 square feet. It's been closed for at least a decade and is slated for demolition because it's in the path of California's proposed high-speed train.

The plant at various times wore the names of Pacific Coast Seeded Raisins, California Packing Corp., Yorkshire Dried Fruit & Nuts and finally Premier Valley Foods -- the title on the shuttered Tulare Street entrance and other places on the building. To many with a long memory, it's the old Del Monte building.

A Los Angeles investment group bought the plant in 2005 with plans to transform it into a retail center. Those hopes died and the investors gave the property up in bankruptcy in 2011.

The size and location of the fire provide a textbook example of the challenges of responding to an emergency in the cozy confines of downtown Fresno.

The fire in the north section was reported at 10:28 a.m. The engine from Station No. 3 just two blocks away was first on the scene.

Donis said fire officials opted for a "defensive" strategy.

Confident that no one was trapped inside, firefighters from engines and ladder-trucks covered the blaze from a safe distance on three sides. They periodically used water on portions of the blaze, but generally let the flames do their thing. Chunks of wall collapsed on occasion, but no one was close enough to be hurt.

Firefighters along G Street were sentries to ensure the flames didn't spread to businesses such as Central Fish located on the street's west side.

The old packinghouse's middle section, rising some 40 feet above the ground, was the most imposing. The question: Let it burn or try to limit the flames to the north section?

Fire officials chose to let the middle section burn. They saw no reason to send firefighters inside a darkened, unstable building with potentially innumerable obstacles such as holes in the floor.

Flames soon shot through the roof. Black smoke replaced gray smoke. A long line of flame, like the broiler in an oven, burned steadily along the top floor's ceiling. One firefighter thought the middle section would collapse by late afternoon.

But it soon appeared the middle section was running out of stuff to burn. The building was long past being of any earthly use and had taken on the look of a bombed-out hulk. Yet, still it stood.

Fire and city officials faced another worry: What do they do with the place at night in light of downtown's many transients? Officials had no easy answers. No one looked forward to guarding the site till sunrise.

While all this unfolded, the rest of downtown tried to get on with business.

The old packinghouse, for obvious reasons, is close to the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Early in the fire, Donis said, rail traffic was halted. The freight trains soon returned, inching past the fire engines and ladder-trucks as if rubber-necking.

Fire officials worried about water pressure should events suddenly require all available hoses and hydrants to go full-out. Downtown's creaky water system has been a long-standing concern at City Hall.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. shut off power in the area, including the block at Tulare and H Street with Chukchansi Park. Various authorities -- City Hall, fire department, traffic division, PG&E and the Fresno Grizzlies -- huddled to talk about options. The Grizzlies on Saturday night would be giving away 1954 New York Giants World Series Championship replica rings to the first 7,000 fans through the gates. People were joining a line outside the gates at noon as the fire raged.

Johns, the fire department spokesman, said at 4:30 p.m. that PG&E had restored power to the area. With a note of caution -- key avenues to the ballpark from the west were closed off -- the game went on, albeit 30 minutes later than originally schedule.

Johns said the fire was under control, but about 20 firefighters remained to make sure it stayed that way. The fire was still burning in part of the plant, he said.

By late Saturday night, firefighters could see fires smoldering in the southern section of the building, Battalion Chief Tony Escobedo said. He said that because of windy conditions, firefighters remained on guard, expecting that building to collapse sometime overnight.

Escobedo said crews would be on the site for at least another 24 hours.

Fire recap

First reported: 10:28 a.m.

Firefighters: 60 on scene at the height of the battle using 13 firetrucks and engines

Building: The former Del Monte packinghouse plant was three connected buildings totaling 112,000 square feet

Staff writer Rory Appleton contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

The Fresno Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service