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Moorhead chief says plant fire worst he's seen in 20 years, damage could be in the millions

MOORHEAD - Firefighters continue to monitor hot spots this morning at the Pactiv Advanced Packaging Solutions building and will likely be at the fire scene for a good part of the day, Moorhead Assistant Chief Joe Gaughan said.

Fire Chief Rich Duysen said the fire that destroyed the egg carton production plant here Wednesday is the largest he's seen in nearly 20 years.

Duysen said the fire was likely started by a pulp dryer on the west end of the building. He likened the dryer to a "big oven" used to dry wet newspaper. The recycled newspaper is used to make the egg cartons.

Gaughan said crews are using hand lines to knock down hot spots where the building's sprinkler system wasn't effective.

It's not yet known whether anything will be salvageable, he said.

Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist said Wednesday the fire at Pactiv, in the city's southside industrial park, would likely lead to a total loss.

Duysen said the specific amount of damages wasn't available Wednesday, but he estimated it would be in the "millions." According to city property tax data, the building's most recent tax assessment valued the building at $4.5 million.

Employees were already evacuated from the facility before authorities received the fire call at 3:24 p.m. Fire crews had to quickly retreat from inside the building because of intense heat and heavy smoke.

About 100 sprinkler heads poured water on the fire from inside the building, but the fire was too hot for the sprinklers to be effective, Duysen said.

Water tankers hauled in additional water, as Duysen estimated fire crews were using up to 5,000 gallons of water per minute to control the fire.

"We're using all the water supply we have in the area, and we're hauling in water from several rural departments," Duysen said at about 6:30 p.m.

The direction of strong winds helped fire crews as they focused on keeping the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings, such as D&M Industries north of the Pactiv plant.

"We've got favorable wind conditions today. The wind is blowing from the north to the south," Duysen said.

Officials expected the 50 to 60 firefighters from Moorhead, Dilworth, Fargo and Sabin, Minn., to remain on scene through the night. They wouldn't enter the building again to fight the fire from the inside, Duysen said.

"The ceiling is already caving in. There's no way they could go in there," Bergquist said.

No injuries were reported.

About 45 employees were evacuated at the time of the fire. Supervisors told them they could go home if parked on the north side of the building and could drive away without running over a fire hose. Other workers were asked to call a friend for a ride home. Tow trucks were called to remove vehicles that could not be moved.

Plant manager Jeff Manuel said the Pactiv plant employs about 160 people. He said Wednesday evening that he will not know what will happen to those jobs until he and corporate officials have a chance to get inside the building and assess the damage.

"That'll come when we know more," Manuel said. "It'll affect a lot of people, a lot of businesses."

Some background on the company and the building from The Forum's archives:

• The building that houses the Pactiv plant was built in 1993, when it was known as the Envirosys egg carton production plant.

• The facility was constructed with the help of a $13.6 million loan from the city of Moorhead, which ended up seizing the property and selling it to Tenneco/Pactiv for $9.5 million in 1996.

• Pactiv became a stand-alone company about three years later, and the plant was expanded, doubling in size from 55,000 square feet to 110,000 square feet.

• About two years ago, a 20,000-square-foot expansion was begun at a cost of between $5 million and $8.5 million.

• In 2010, the plant was producing 250 million egg cartons a year, mostly from recycled newspapers.

• Also at that time, the plant employed about 145 people and occupied about seven acres of a 17-acre site at 3010 42nd St. S., in the Moorhead industrial park.

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