By Laura Walter
Although a structure fire is never good for the environment, Selbyville dodged a bullet when the Mountaire poultry processing plant there caught fire on Monday, April 23.
There were no reported injuries and no particular impact to the community or environment, said Selbyville Volunteer Fire Company Chief Matt Sliwa.
The sun gleamed over a mild spring day when volunteer firefighters responded to a roof fire at the Hosier Street processing plant around 3:45 p.m.
On the third-floor roof above the plant’s main entrance, “an electrical transformer failed at our Selbyville plant, causing a fire,” stated Sean McKeon, Mountaire director of communication and community relations.
Heavy fire and black smoke poured across the town when one of the two roof transformers suffered “catastrophic failure,” Sliwa said.
“Some of the roofing materials were like rubber tar stuff. When that starts to burn, that creates a very thick, black acrid smoke,” Sliwa said. “So there was a lot of black smoke from the roofing materials. And the transformer has something [similar to mineral oil]. At that high heat, that mineral oil starts to burn off. That created a lot of the black smoke when the crews first arrived on scene.”
Another concern was a pressurized ammonia tank near the fire location. Along with suppressing the fire, volunteer firefighters continued spraying water over the tank to keep it cool.
“We were able to get that fire contained and controlled quick enough… so what was a potential didn’t become a reality,” Sliwa said.
The fire was mostly contained to the roof, reaching slightly to some exterior walls, Sliwa said.
“My guys did an excellent job. I was very proud of the work they did and how the agencies came together,” he noted.
Factory-wide, the electricity was shut off as fire crews worked, until about 5:45 p.m., when the fire was under control and the building was turned back over to Mountaire.
The Delaware State Fire Marshal’s Office estimated the fire damage at $500,000.
During the fire, hundreds of employees were evacuated and watched firefighting efforts from the ground around the building. Eventually, they were permitted back inside to retrieve their personal belongings before being sent home.
The plant was closed on Tuesday, although the “third shift” sanitation crew was scheduled to work as usual. The plant would resume normal operations on Wednesday, April 25. McKeon did not comment on whether employees from the first two shifts would lose a day’s pay to the plant closure.
When the fire broke out, next door at the Southern Delaware School of the Arts, students had already gone home for the day, at 2:40 p.m.
The SVFC also received help from fire companies from Bethany Beach, Dagsboro, Frankford, Gumboro, Millsboro, Millville and Roxana, and Bishopville, Md. Additional support came from area police, regional hazardous-materials teams and the Delaware State Fire School.
“These are volunteers that are coming in. We’re highly trained, but we’re still volunteers,” Sliwa said. “For instance, I left my office in Georgetown. … These people came from home. They came from work, and they still go on scene and did a professional job. So the volunteers in Delaware do an amazing job mitigating these instances that happen.”
“All Mountaire employees were evacuated safely from the plant, and there were no injuries,” McKeon stated. “Mountaire would like to thank all first-responders and those who acted quickly to this plant incident. We are blessed to have so many men and women dedicated to serving our communities.”
Less than a week earlier, the Millsboro plant had celebrated a milestone of work-hours without a workplace accident.
In early 2017, a Selbyville employee suffered facial trauma and severe chemical burns when he inadvertently mixed two cleaning chemicals that resulted in a pressurized container exploding. At that time, Sliwa had said, “We end up at Mountaire on a fairy regular basis, but it’s for the regular ambulance call.” With hundreds of people per shift, he said, it’s not uncommon to have cuts, bruises or chest pains, just like the rest of the general public.
This week, Sliwa said the SVFC has a good working relationship with Mountaire.
Mountaire Farms is a privately-owned company employing more than 8,500 people in five states.