The flames and smoke roared with ferocity as firefighters from nine departments arrived on the scene in Hinesburg. The Saputo cheese plant-- which manufactures mozzarella and other specialty cheeses-- caught fire Monday night and forced the evacuation of roughly 50 neighbors. The 20 workers inside escaped without injury before fire crews arrived.
"We had one firefighter injured and that was it. So fortunately they have a very good evacuation plan and got everybody out and accounted for before we got there, so it went well on their end," Hinesburg Fire Chief Al Barber said.
But their work is far from over. The building was still smoldering a good 12 hours after the fire was extinguished. Investigators spent Tuesday surveying the debris, preparing to peel through the layers. But dangerous chemicals posed additional challenges in their effort to find a cause.
"Basically, from my understanding from the fire service here, the lye is like an acid. It's a high ph level. It can cause extremely bad burns to human skin if it's exposed to it so between that and the breathing difficulties you can have being exposed to that, we're going to wait for specialized suits to get here and we're going to use breathing apparatus that the fire department would normally use in those situations," said Det. Sgt. Tom Williams, Vermont Deputy Fire Marshal.
Investigators say the origin of the fire was in the cold storage unit. They still don't know the cause, but it's not suspicious and damage is estimated at $2 million. The storage facility was destroyed and part of receiving, but the manufacturing operation appears unscathed. For now, the company's 100 employees are being paid while the company's executives-- based in Canada-- determine the plant's fate. They're waiting for more information from investigators and that could take some time.
"It is substantial. The majority of the structure is on the ground so when everything burns it burns into layers and piles so we have to remove pile by pile to see what's underneath it to rule out everything within the buildings. So it can be a rather lengthy process," Williams said.
The milk used by this plant comes exclusively from the state's farmers. Saputo accounts for a good chunk of the milk they produce-- about 12 percent of it. So Vermont's agriculture officials are deeply concerned about the fate of the company here. Governor Douglas has already phoned them and offered the state's support. For now, the milk is being diverted to other handlers such as Agrimark.