CHARLES TOWN – Chemical vapors ignited by a heat gun caused a blaze last Thursday morning that resulted in possibly millions of dollars in damage to a warehouse in Charles Town, fire officials reported.
Workers with a hemp-processing business were using a heat gun to assemble equipment when the fire erupted accidentally inside the 200,000-square-foot warehouse on Cold Storage Road, off Summit Point Road, just west of railroad tracks on the west end of Charles Town, said to George Harms, a West Virginia assistant fire marshal and fire investigator.
Acetone and ethanol were being stored inside the warehouse when the fire occurred and one or two plastic barrels of ethanol ignited in what became a three-alarm blaze, according to fire officials and a representative of a hemp processing company renting and renovating space inside the single-story warehouse.
“We had a massive amount of smoke inside, so it was a little bit more difficult to try to locate and find the fire,” said Adam Watson, chief of the Independent Fire Co. in Ranson.
No injuries were reported. A warning notice about a possible evacuation was sent to school officials until fire officials could contain the fire and learn more about what chemicals were inside the burning warehouse, Watson said.
Jefferson County does not have a hazardous materials firefighting unit. A Loudoun County Hazmat team from Chantilly, Va., was summoned to the scene, Watson said.
“Once we had the fire contained, we allowed Hazmat to get in there and make sure everything was safe for us,” he said. “It was more of a precaution because at the time we still didn’t know 100 percent-sure everything that was within that facility. But it came down to everything being OK.”
Watson said firefighters weren’t sure whether records listing what chemicals are stored at industrial sites — known as MSDSs or material safety data sheets — were complete and up to date for the warehouse. However, workers at the warehouse helped explain to emergency dispatchers and firefighters what chemicals were on site and they provided a helpful map of the warehouse as well, he said.
“With many businesses in the area you don’t, unfortunately, know everything that goes on within your area,” Watson said. “But we’re going to learn on this one and hopefully be able to get their MSDS sheets for the chemicals that they use. In that way, we can be prepared.”
When the fire erupted, workers from the hemp processor, a company called The CBD Factories, were assembling machinery to extract and test cannabinoid oil, known as CBD, this week from a delivery of hemp, said Mark Tate, a representative from the company.
A plastic covering on a table where the heat gun was used was the first material to catch fire, Tate said. Drywall from a 20,000-square-foot structure under construction inside the warehouse also caught fire, Watson and Tate said.
“It was kind of like a house fire inside of a warehouse,” Watson said, noting this complicated fire suppression efforts.
No hemp or CBD oil was in the warehouse at the time, Tate said.
Stacks of wood stored in the warehouse for the Shenandoah Planing Mill, a mill operating in a corrugated building next to the warehouse, were protected from the fire.
About 75 firefighters from Jefferson County’s seven volunteer fire companies and from five other surrounding counties responded to the blaze. Rotating teams totaling 35 to 40 firefighters took turns battling the fire inside the warehouse, said Watson, who praised the quick and professional work of the firefighting teams to prevent further damage. “It got up to the roofline, just a little bit, but we were able to stop it,” he said of the blaze. “It could have gotten up in that roof area and run straight across that warehouse and just completely gotten out of hand.”
Page Jackson Elementary School about a half-mile away was the only school given temporary “shelter in place” instructions, according to Hans Fogle, a public information officer for Jefferson County Schools. Students and staff were asked to stay inside the school until questions about chemical hazards were addressed, Watson and Fogle said.
Classes and instruction continued without interruption at Page Jackson until the shelter-in-place precaution was lifted shortly after midday, Fogle reported.
The warehouse, a former cold storage building for fruit and apple orchards, is owned by Cold Storage Co. in Winchester, Va. The company operates four other warehouses in Frederick County in Virginia.