Large fire erupts at Hilmar Cheese Company, $2M in losses reported

Hilmar Cheese in Hilmar, Ca.
Hilmar Cheese in Hilmar, Ca. jlee@modbee.com

A large fire broke out Saturday at a plant operated by Hilmar Cheese Company — a business in Merced County that’s one of the largest cheese producers in the state.

The fire erupted around noon and took firefighters nearly two hours to put out. The fire ignited inside one of the company’s three cheese plants. That building includes an assembly line that compresses cheese, according to Cal Fire Battalion Chief Baraka Carter.

No injuries were reported. The company’s visitor center — which includes a cafe — at the cheese company were all evacuated. The plant that caught fire is located behind the visitor center, according to the company’s marketing director Gwen Bargetzi.

She said the fire was contained to the rooftop and did not spread to other facilities.

The fire mainly impacted the pump system at the plant. It’s believed the cause of the fire may be mechanical, though it’s still under investigation. The company is conducting its own investigation, Carter and Bargetzi said.

The fire sent heavy flames and smoke from the top of the plant, which is about three stories tall. The smoke could be seen for miles, Carter said.

About 20 firefighters responded to the blaze, which was contained at around 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Carter said the fire is expected to cost the company an estimated $2 million in losses, though Bargetzi was unable to confirm that figure.

Carter said there was damage to the building, equipment, machinery and the cheese product. “It was a significant fire,” he added.

It’s unclear how many workers were on hand Saturday.

The plant that caught fire will be out of service until the mechanical issues are fixed, according to Carter, but other operations at the cheese company were expected to resume.

The other plants continued production during the fire. “We are doing all the proper due diligence when you make food. We want to make sure that safety comes first,” Bargetzi said.

The company produces about a million pounds of cheese a day between its two sites, in Hilmar and Texas.

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado: 559-441-6304, @cres_guez