In September 2008, Fire Chief Al Barber arrived at the Saputo cheese factory in Hinesburg, VT, to find more than 12,000 square feet of the chemical storage area ablaze, the largest industrial fire in the state in many years.
Within only eight minutes, the firefighters achieved the first initial knockdown, but due to a shift in focus to a firefighter who fell and was injured, the fire regained a hold on the building. Barber attributes the initial success to use of a compressed air foam system (CAFS).
"Once we arrived on-scene, we had an aerial ladder truck up near the involved area and flooded it with CAFS," Barber said. "It simply wouldn't have happened that quickly with just water."
The firefighters' quick work avoided a total loss at Saputo, which employs 80 workers.
Hinesburg's fire department averages about 30 to 35 active members, all volunteer firefighters and first responder/EMTs from within the town. The department covers all fire, medical, hazmat and heavy rescue calls for the towns of Hinesburg and St. George, as well as mutual aid to other surrounding towns. The HFD responds to approximately 450 calls per year.
At 9:26 p.m., Sept. 29, dispatch alerted HFD members by pager to a structure fire at Saputo. Within moments, more reports were coming in from dispatch and responding members saw flames through the roof at the northeast corner of the factory.
As Hinesburg's engines left the station, Chief Barber was already calling on nine mutual aid fire departments with nearly 175 members to respond as well. Engines, tankers, a tower ladder truck, an aerial ladder truck and manpower were requested from Charlotte, Shelburne, Williston, Richmond, Monkton, Starksboro and Essex Junction.
Route 116 through town was closed to traffic to allow emergency vehicles full and safe approach to the scene. Firefighters from Richmond responded to cover the Hinesburg station, but would later be requested to the scene.
The fire was located in the area of the plant used for chemical storage, maintenance shops and general excess storage. The storage area included canisters and drums of chemicals used for cleaning and sterilizing production machines. Based on this information, and the size of the fire, a defensive attack was put in place.
All Saputo employees had been safely evacuated and accounted for before firefighters arrived. By that time, flames already dwarfed the factory's 100-foot-tall milk towers. Streaming compressed air foam from the top of an aerial ladder with a 2?-inch hoseline was put into action by Barber.
Using Waterous CAFS on Hinesburg Engine 2 and Charlotte Engine 1, the fire was held in check while Williston's Tower and Essex Junction's ladder arrived and set up master stream operations. No firefighters were allowed into the building during the initial fire attack.
A CAFS unit is capable of delivering water, water and foam solution, or a water and foam solution charged with compressed air. CAFS is a high energy delivery system because its foam generation uses a combination of power sources, such as a water pump and an air compressor to create and propel foam. In a typical CAFS unit employing a balanced system, the foam solution is normally proportioned at a ratio ranging from .1 percent to .5 percent with .3 percent being the standard baseline for application.
After knockdown, the Hinesburg crew continued flooding the involved area from above. Meanwhile, Barber assigned the Charlotte Fire Department, led by Battalion Chief Dick St. George, to interior attack.
"We were assigned by fire command to cut the fire off from the main offices and production areas of the building, which was about 90,000 some-odd square feet of uninvolved space," St. George said.
Entering the involved part of the structure to keep the fire from spreading, the Charlotte crew crawled into the 12,000 square foot chemical storage areas on their bellies to safely avoid the severe heat conditions.
"We ended up having to hand-jack a 700 foot, 2?-inch CAFS line into the interior, which we couldn't have done if it wasn't compressed air foam," St. George said. "A water line would have been too heavy and cumbersome and far too taxing on our firefighters."
Charlotte firefighters risked chemical contamination, virtually swimming into a highly caustic chemical soup created by the initial fire damage. The involved area housed two 2,500-gallon chemical tanks containing 35 percent sodium hydroxide and 55-gallon drums of various other chemicals used to process mozzarella and other cheeses at the factory.
Completely incinerated by the fire, the drums melted, spilling chemicals together into what became a dangerously contamined mix, Barber said.
"The pH readings were at 13.5, which is basically lye, and the firefighters were covered in it," Barber said. "Fortunately, no one was burned from the chemicals, but our bunker gear, packs, imaging cameras, nearly all our equipment and gear were ruined because of the contamination."
Fire walls held the fire to the warehouse and milk receiving areas. The offices and production area received only smoke and water damage. Shortly after 11 p.m., the fire was officially declared under control.
By 5 a.m., the fire was mostly extinguished, with only hot spots remaining. Firefighters were called in from Starksburo, Huntington and Monkton firefighters for fresh manpower, while mutual aid departments on scene overnight started to be released.
Fortunately, all contaminated runoff water was contained within the building and flowed to the Saputo Foods pre-treatment plant. A pH test of the brook behind the plant was normal.
One Hinesburg firefighter was injured early in the attack when he fell from a ladder. Capt. Jonathan Wainer injured his right hand, wrist and knee in the fall, requiring several surgeries and hours of therapy.
Despite firefighters saving much of the factory, the Quebec-based firm decided in October to permanently close the cheesemaking facility. Some of the plant's workers were offered transfers to other facilities in the firm's U.S. division.
Compressed air foam has changed the way Hinesburg firefighters do their job, Barber said.
"We're more effective in getting a quick knockdown and we operate much safer in our attack," Barber said. "The Saputo cheese factory was an impressive, damaging fire, but it would have been far more devastating, dangerous and costly without CAFS."