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Fire destroys Sanger baby food plant, company plans to regroup

Fire crews mop up early morning fire at baby food company in Sanger

Fire crews mop up early morning fire at baby food company in Sanger on Sunday, July 24, 2016.
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Fire crews mop up early morning fire at baby food company in Sanger on Sunday, July 24, 2016.

A fire early Sunday morning destroyed a block-long complex of buildings where Initiative Foods produces its specialty baby food products in central Sanger.

Fire crews from nearly a dozen fire agencies responded to battle the fire, which burned and smoldered for hours. Fire crews expected to remain on scene until Monday morning.

Company officials said employees had finished their last shift of the week shortly before the fire erupted before 3 a.m. The plant employs about 100 people, and company officials said workers would gather at another company location in Sanger on Monday morning to discuss what happens next for the company.

“Pretty much the property has been destroyed,” said John Mulligan, Sanger’s public works director. The damage is “pretty significant.”

The Sanger Fire Department received word of the fire around 3 a.m. at Initiative Foods at 1117 K St., near Academy and Annadale avenues, Sanger Fire Chief Greg Tarascou said. Firefighters called for assistance after they arrived to find a considerable amount of flames at the plant.

Seventy-five firefighters from 11 different agencies, including Fresno, Clovis and Fresno County Fire responded to the blaze, Tarascou said. He said it was the largest fire he has seen in Sanger in at least a decade.

The progress of the fire was stopped after 80 percent of the complex was involved in flames, Tarascou said. Firefighters still were in a defensive posture against the blaze late Sunday morning as they continued to put out massive fires inside the buildings.

Tarascou expected firefighters to remain at the scene through Sunday night and into Monday as they mopped up the blaze.

Tarascou estimated that the buildings at the site encompassed around 200,000 square feet. There were no injuries to employees, but firefighters faced several challenges, including a loss of water pressure when power to a well pump lost its electrical connection due to the fire, and summer heat.

Sanger residents delivered extra drinking water, and Sequoia Chevrolet Buick GMC, next door to the baby food plant, opened its doors to give firefighters a breather, the chief said.

Initiative Foods makes Nature’s Promise baby foods and the Organic store brand seen at Sprouts and Safeway/Von’s stores.

James Ypma, production manager and safety coordinator for Initiative Foods, said the fire started minutes after employees had left the plant after finishing their final shift of the week.

Ypma said approximately 100 employees worked at the plant and the company plans to hold a meeting Monday morning at its facility near North Avenue and Industrial Way to discuss its next steps.

Ypma also added that the company has initiated its business continuity plan. He isn’t sure how the fire will affect its clients.

“We’re going to take it one day at a time,” Ypma said, “as we build toward a brighter future.”

Ypma commended firefighters and paramedics for their efforts. He said he received offers of support from numerous community members.

Initiative Foods owner John Ypma, in an email to employees, said the plant and the warehouses “are gone,” according to a report on the Sanger Herald’s Facebook page.

Mulligan, the Sanger public works director, received word of the massive blaze around 4 a.m. after firefighters were hindered by water pressure loss from a nearby well after power was cut to it because of downed lines.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. was notified and arrived minutes later to restore power to the well. Firefighters were able to continue their battle against the blaze without further issue.

Meanwhile, city public works crews were sent to help firefighters breach walls and pump excess water from the area, Mulligan said.

As fire crews continued to mop up Sunday, Mulligan said the impact to the company and the city would be big because of the number of employees at the plant. The public works director said he has kept in touch with the company owner as he returns from New York.

A one-block area around the plant was closed, including Academy Avenue, as fire crews continued to work on the fire. Power remained out for about 40 customers late Sunday, according to PG&E.

At Sequoia Chevrolet, which sits across the railroad tracks from Initiative Foods, owner Marty Dority said he heard about the fire early in the morning and immediately headed to the scene.

Dority was worried that his business would be the next one to go up in flames. “It was blazing pretty good,” he said.

He was initially called in through the police tape so that firefighters could use the dealership’s bathrooms.

“This was the only place where they could come get in the shade and use a restroom,” Dority said. “You just do what’s neighborly.”

Fire engines were parked in his lot to battle the flames and to make sure they didn’t spread and damage his vehicles and buildings. Eventually they used the business as a staging area where fire crews could get water and breakfast sandwiches, while getting much needed shade from the heat.

Dority saw that firefighters didn’t have enough food and water. So he went to Walmart and bought a half truckload of bottled water, ice chests and ice. Afterward, 50 pizzas arrived from Little Caesars for the crews.

“These people are amazing,” Dority said. “We just wanted to do our part.”

Paul Schlesinger: 559-441-6659, @PaulSch_Photog

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