Authorities are describing the Grain Craft mill in Pendleton as a total loss after a small fire that began on Tuesday afternoon reignited early Wednesday morning while the building was empty, fully engulfing the mill due to the significant amount of dry grain it was housing as well as its wood structure.
Pendleton Assistant Fire Chief Tony Pierotti told the media that the fuel load was “extreme” because the silos were filled with finished grain.
Authorities have been keeping the area clear in anticipation of the potential collapse of the building, which is more than 100 years old, as well as the amount of slow-burning grain. The mill is surrounded by the county courthouse as well as businesses and homes.
The fire was reportedly caused by mechanical failure that may be related to a sifter’s filter. Police Chief Charles Byram said: "It happened in the mill itself, with one of the pieces of equipment, with a rubber bushing or housing that obviously got too hot and started the fire."
There were no injuries, but some buildings in the immediate area sustained smoke and water damage. The mill had been processing a significant amount of flour as the fire occurred right in the middle of harvest season.
Although an exact figure was not available, employees of the mill have estimated that there were “hundreds of thousands of pounds of processed flour in the bins.” An estimated cost of the damages is not yet available.
The company is now working with Pacific Northwest wheat farmers to handle the excess supply. Although they have never disclosed the building's production capacity and it is difficult to determine the full extent of the damage, the president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, Ben Maney, said that a substantial number of area farmers bring their grain to the facility, which he described as a staple in the Pendleton community.
Maney said the fire is just the latest hit for growers who are still struggling after the severe drought of last year. Some crops rebounded thanks to the spring rains this year, but many farmers lack home storage for their grain and relied on the mill.
He noted: "A lot of farmers don't have home storage, and they can't store that grain on their farm. For this heartbreaking event to happen today, it puts the community and a lot of the farmers in a tough situation. It hits the community hard."
The farmer-owned flour company Shepherd’s Grain emailed customers to inform them of an interruption in flour supply as they work on a contingency plan and get wheat staged to be moved to another mill.
Byram pointed out that the fire will have a big impact on Pendleton, stating: "They're a major employer; we are obviously an agricultural community that does a lot of dryland wheat farming. Wheat farmers from the surrounding area bring their wheat in here to the Pendleton flour mill. It's yet to be determined what the impact is, but I can gauge it's going to be significant."
The mill makes flour for several types of foods, including tortillas and pizza. Oregon is America’s 11th biggest producer of wheat, and the crop is the third biggest cash crop for the state. Up to 90 percent of the wheat that is produced in Oregon is shipped to markets overseas, especially in Asia.
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