Westmoreland firefighters help quench 4-alarm fire

See amazing photos … and read what happens when men and women of Portland Fire & Rescue – from all over East Portland – pulled on their gear and headed out to fight one of the largest industrial fires in years …

The Taylor Electric fire was so intense; embers flew up stories high into the air. In fact, a pallet rack shelf was projected high into the night sky by an explosion of burning material, carried up on convection current.

A firefighter climbs atop an adjoining building to make sure embers didn’t set it ablaze.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

It was a typical, busy day for the firefighters at Westmoreland’s Station 20 on May 17. But their shift eventually included fighting one of the largest fires in recent history.

“Our 24-hour shift begins at 8 am,” Portland Fire & Rescue’s Dave Gallucci told East PDX News. “Right off the bat, we were busy. Nothing major, we went on a number of runs ‚Äì mostly medical calls ‚Äì throughout the day.”

Station 20, located on S.E. Bybee Boulevard, just west of the Bybee Bridge, is a four-person station house. By early evening, Gallucci and Jeff Von Allmen had set about making dinner for the crew. “We all ate, and the day started to slow down,” Von Allmen said.

Westmorland Portland Fire & Rescue Station 20 firefighters Dave Gallucci and Jeff Von Allmen were two of the 125 firefighters who fought the four-alarm, Taylor Electric Company fire that could be seen for miles around.Business picks up for Station 20
“We generally turn in around 10 pm,” Gallucci told us. “I do a little reading, and off with the light. That’s when the Tap Out [fire call] sounded. We’re familiar with that area, so we didn’t wait ‚Äì we pulled on our turnouts [fire jackets, pants and boots], and headed for the fire.”

“It was our co-firefighter, Dan Kendoll’s, last shift. He was facing forward in the engine cab, and he said he could see the flames lighting up the sky by the time we got to Holgate,” Von Allmen told us. “We jokingly blamed the late call-out on Kendoll, as we drove to the command post.”

They could see a train was blocking the Milwaukie Avenue crossing north of Powell, so they cut over to McLoughlin Boulevard, north on S.E. Grand, then to Clay Street.

“The fire was really ripping,” Gallucci continued. “I was the driver for the shift, so I started up the pump as the other crew members hooked up hoses at S.E. Second and Madison.” The blaze was just west of MLK Boulevard, just north of the Hawthorne Bridge, and only a couple of blocks east of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and a branch campus of Portland Community College.

Engine supplies water
Because a high ladder truck carries no water, and doesn’t have its own pumps, it’s fire engines like Engine 20, that boosts the hydrant water pressure enough send it up the hose to the top of the five-story-high ladder, so it can be sprayed down on the fire.

Von Allmen confirmed that no firefighters were being allowed in the building, “But our engine also ran a hand-held line we used to shoot water into the windows at ground level. We put out a little of the fire.”

About an hour after the fire was discovered, the roof on the city-block-sized building collapsed, spewing a shower of sparks and cinders, and blowing large boards high into the night sky. Firefighters were dispatched to the roofs of nearby buildings to make sure they didn’t catch fire.

Karla Peterson was one of the hundreds of people came to watch this, one of the largest fires ever in the Southeast industrial area, burn on into the night. Although Peterson was blocks away from the fire, she winced and withdrew a step as the inferno exploded into the night sky. “I’ve never seen anything this. It’s awesome; I mean, awful. All the water can’t seem to put it out.”

Keeps truck cool
“The fire in the building was so intense, it wasn’t long until we could see our engine was really heating up,” Von Allmen picked up the story. “When we hit it with water, steam poured off it. Unfortunately we’d left a couple of our windows down ‚Äì it got cleaned out pretty good. We kept drenching our engine until the fire was out.”

Through the wee hours of May 18th, the Sellwood-Moreland firefighters stayed at their post, supplying 1,500 gallons of water per minute, for four hours – pushing 360,000 gallons of water, from their rig alone, to douse the conflagration.

“As close as we were to the fire, we didn’t get much smoke,” Gallucci recalled. “It was blowing away from us, so we didn’t have to wear our breathing apparatus. Some of the firefighters went through several bottles of air. Their rigs, in the smoke, got so dirty, they later had to be hand-washed, even after pressure spraying.”

“The fire burned so hot,” Von Allmen added, “it burned out pretty quickly. Sometimes a large fire like this can burn for days.” Working together, a total of 125 Portland Fire & Rescue crewmembers managed to protect all of the surrounding buildings.

Home, but not for long
By 4 am, the Station 20 crew was released, and was back in their firehouse. “It only took about an hour to square away our rig,” Von Allmen told us. “We just got settled down, and then a medical call came in. That was about 6 am.”

The following day, firefighters were still on scene, putting out the hot spots that remained.“It was a long day,” concluded Gallucci, “but in many ways, it was just another day in the life of a firefighter.”

After the fire
To prevent electrocution, Portland General Electric crews disconnected power from the industrial area’s grid shortly after the fire broke out. Good thing; at least three power transformers exploded in the fire’s intense heat, releasing their cooling oil. Millions of gallons of water running off from the firefighting carried it into Willamette River.

According to Taylor Electric’s operations manager, the burnt building was filled with about $4 million worth of inventory, including wire, circuit breakers, transformers, and other equipment.

Eating pizza provided by a nearby business owner is firefighter John Robinson with Station 4.

Business owner provides lunch
As firefighters continued to douse the smoldering rubble the following morning, a table laden with pizzas appeared outside Rose’s Restaurant Equipment, directly across the street from the burned out building.

“We watched it on TV,” said owner Karen Rose, “and our son was here, keeping an eye on the store. We were concerned about the front of our building. The firefighters did a really good job.”

Rose said a firefighter asked if we knew where they order a sandwich, because they couldn’t leave their post. “We immediately called Dave Clark, owner of Pietro’s Pizza in Milwaukie. He asked, ‘How many?’ The firefighters said they couldn’t accept any kind of gifts; so we just set it all out, and walked away. I’m happy to see it looks like most of it is gone!”

Fire cause under investigation
“The exact cause of the huge blaze is still under investigation,” Lt. Allen Oswalt, fire department spokesman told us. “But it started outside the building. We believe a large stack of wooden pallets outside the southwest corner of the building was set on fire, either accidentally or on purpose.”

The pallet fire burned so intensely, Oswalt explained, that it broke the building’s exterior windows nearby. The fire then jumped inside the building. He confirmed that the company’s last employee had left the building some four hours before the start of the fire, and that nobody was in the building when it burned.

The fire investigation is continuing.

© 2006 David F. Ashton ~ East PDX News ~ Published May 29, 2006

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