Careless handling of BBQ briquettes destroys inner SE Portland business

We’ve seen the results when this happens at homes and apartment buildings – but look at the devastation a careless act caused at a venerated local business …

Portland Fire & Rescue crews keep pouring water on material used to make industrial conveyor belts at this September 10th three-alarm blaze in inner SE Portland.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
For decades, Empire Robber & Supply, located in inner SE Portland’s industrial area (on SE Taylor and SE Water Streets), has been fabricating, installing, and servicing heavy-duty conveyor belts which move mountains of gravel and other building materials.

But, on September 10, officials say a moment of carelessness reduced a big section of the company to a smoldering heap of rubble – when a fire, the smoke of which could be seen as far away as Tigard, destroyed a building. Quick action by Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) squads – answering three alarms – kept the blaze from devastating separate buildings of the business as well as surrounding businesses.

The fire broke out just after closing time; employees had left the building.

Had firefighters not aggressively attacked this fire, huge rolls of flammable rubber like this would have caught on fire, officials say – and the situation would have quickly grown much worse.

Twelve engines pumped massive amounts of water to firefighter’s lines on the ground – and in the air.

“The fire went quickly to a second alarm,” PF&R spokesman Lt Allen Oswalt told us, as engines pumped water up to six nozzles attacking the fire high above the building. He said they added a third alarm to bring in additional firefighters to relieve the first crews. 84 firefighters, operating 12 engines to pump the water up the ladders to supply five ladder truck snorkels, fought the fire.

“Not long after they arrived on scene,” Oswalt continued, “part of the roof collapsed while firefighters were inside. Deputy Chief John Harding immediately ordered all crews out of the building; we accounted for all of the. We’re now sure no civilians are inside, although an individual was initially reported seen in an upstairs window.”

The work was exhausting for firefighters, Oswalt commented, because the thick, black smoke produced by burning rubber and other materials forced crews working outside the building to wear their breathing apparatus. We watched crews swap out their depleted air tanks for fresh canisters, as the firefighting effort continued.

The choking smoke obscures the buildings across the street near the Willamette east-bank waterfront.

There was no “pot of gold” at the end of this rainbow; only a fire-devastated business.

An employee, who declined to be identified, shook his head as he watched the fire from behind the emergency yellow tape stretched across the street, saying he’d just returned from a job site. “There’s a lot of rubber in the building; even more in the warehouse,” he said as he pointed out his white SUV parked on the south side of the building being doused with water.

It took nearly a half hour – and a river’s flood of water – for the firefighters to control the blaze. Crews from as far away as Station 30, located east of NE 122 Avenue, were called in on “fire watch” throughout the night, dousing hot spots.

High above the fire, two PF&R crewmembers direct streams of water down on the blazing building.

Neglected barbeque gone wild
The following day, Oswalt reported that fire investigators had determined that the blaze had been caused by improper disposal of charcoal ashes.
“Earlier in the day,” explained Oswalt, “the company had a barbeque for its employees. During the cleanup, one of the employees placed the ashes from the briquettes in a plastic container. The hot embers eventually melted though the plastic container, and ignited nearby combustible materials.”

After the smoke cleared, it was evident that firefighters had managed to keep the fire from reaching an attached portion of the building that contained the company’s offices and records storage.

“The fire threatened to spread though several large openings in the concrete wall, but firefighters were able to beat the fire back, so that there was only minimal damage there,” Oswalt added.

PF&R spokesman Lt Allen Oswalt says he’s seen too many fires – mostly at homes and apartment houses – caused by used barbecue charcoal briquettes. He hopes citizens will learn from this tragedy.

A cautionary tale
The fire bureau’s spokesman shook his head and said they “too often” find smoldering, discarded barbecue briquettes to be the cause of fires outside homes and on the decks of apartment buildings.

“Ashes or cinders from cigarettes, fireplaces, or barbecues should always be placed in a metal container, doused with water, and placed outside away from decks or anything else that will burn. Charcoal, in particular, can stay hot, and burn for hours – sometime days,” warned Oswalt.

“A metal container with a tight-fitting metal lid can ensure that the fire and heat stays inside the metal container.”

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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