Processing Magazine

Plant fire forces evacuation of entire Minnesota town

April 20, 2009
Authorities evacuated a southeastern Minnesota town of about 3,600 as a large fire at a meat processing plant threatened the anhydrous ammonia tanks inside, according to the Associated Press. Civil defense sirens blared to warn residents to get out and officials went door-to-door ordering residents to head toward Lewiston, about 10 miles to the east, because of the fire at North Star Foods. Sheriff''s deputies started evacuating people and pets and evacuation centers were set up for displaced residents. City Administrator Nick Koverman said there were about 30,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia in the plant. The refrigerant can cause severe burns, particularly to the eyes, throat and lungs. The cause of the fire wasn''t immediately known, he said, and it wasn''t clear when residents would be allowed to return. A hazardous materials team was summoned as smoke poured from the sprawling building. Firefighters from surrounding cities converged to help fight the blaze. There were no immediate reports of serious injuries. After the fires were put out, crews were venting the ammonia tanks to reduce the hazard, according to a spokeswoman at the makeshift emergency operations center. Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand said there would be no public access to St. Charles. Both major highways through the city were closed and reporters were kept about 2 miles away. Smoke from the fire could be seen 10 miles away and three tornado-like clouds of gray smoke were visible from five miles away. North Star Foods plant manager Mark Eads said the fire started late above one of the ovens where chickens are cooked. North Star Foods is the second-largest employer in St. Charles with about 150 workers. Their futures were on the minds of some residents even as the fire burned. North Star Foods Inc. has been in business since 1971, according to its Web site. It processes chicken, turkey, beef, pork and other food products.