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Fire fighters work to put out fire, keep Jarden Brands operational

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You’ve heard of a three-alarm fire, when multiple resources respond to a serious fire? Well the Cloquet Area Fire District (CAFD) had a three-alarm and a three-day fire last week at the Jarden Home Brands plant, which manufactures matches and wooden toothpicks at its Diamond Brands facility in Cloquet.

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CAFD Chief Kevin Schroeder said the fire was “complicated,” because fire fighters tried to tackle the fire in a way that wouldn’t put Jarden out of business for an extended period of time. The boilers needed to keep running, otherwise the company might not have been unable to start back up again quickly and damage would have been much greater.

“The fire was in a fuel storage area in the boiler house,” Schroeder explained. “It wasn’t something we hadn’t seen, because our industries all deal in wood chips, but this one was more seeded [advanced] than we’ve seen before.”

The fire chief explained that a fire can start deep inside the pile of wood chips and it won’t generate any smoke until it burns its way to the outside edge of the pile.

This was no backyard pile of woodchips either, said Schroeder, who estimated the building was close to 70 feet tall and 30 by 75 feet wide.

“The building wasn’t full to the top, but there was probably 40 to 50 feet of material in the building,” he said.

Rather than simply let the sprinklers run for days to douse the flames — an option that would have left the company with dead boilers encased in three or four feet of ice — CAFD officials worked with Jarden management to figure out a way to tackle the fire differently.

Mendy Aul, Jarden Brands vice president of global operations, said the response was “absolutely amazing.”

“We trust the fire department — they’re the experts,” she said. “They contained the fire quickly, made sure everyone was safe, then we worked together to come up with a thoughtful way to put the fire out.”

It was a learning experience, Schroeder said, but one with a happy ending. Jarden was able to resume normal operations Monday morning after safety checks, and no one from Jarden or CAFD was injured by the fire, although several CAFD staff (including Schroeder) worked more than 30 hours straight. The sheer amount of time and manpower required meant CAFD also had to call on neighboring fire departments from Esko and Carlton to help with the effort and to enable CAFD to also continue to respond to other emergency medical and fire calls.

“Part of the reason we were there for three days is because every decision we made, we had to think ‘How do we keep Jarden Brands operational?’” Schroeder explained.

They tried more than one tactic to put out the fire, he said, first calling on the Air National Guard out of Duluth to apply foam to the entire building in an attempt to smother the fire.

It didn’t work.

“The thermal mass burned right through the foam blanket,” Schroeder said. “But it did buy us some time.”

Adding to the complexity of the situation was the height of the building and the fact that Jarden has a dust-control system that connects its various buildings through duct work, another way the fire could have spread. Plus, the layout of the boiler house made it difficult for firefighters to access the fire and put it out.

There were some scary moments, he said.

“When the fire got into the roof and our fire fighters were walking on catwalks [to fight the flames], it was a very dangerous situation with the snow and ice,” he said.

Ultimately, CAFD and Jarden staff worked with Lakehead Construction to take down one wall of the building and remove as much of the still-burning wood as possible. (CAFD Battalion Chief Steve Kolodge drove the loader in and out of the building in his fire fighter suit.)

“Once the majority of the burning material was out, we went back in with hand-lines and foam systems and extinguished the rest,” Schroeder said.

The call came in at 4:48 p.m. Wednesday — they were on the scene in four minutes — and Schroeder said the firefighters finished around 4 p.m. Saturday, “within minutes of 72 hours,” he said.

Although the fire and the damage were hardly visible from outside the plant compound, the longtime firefighter said it was one for the record books.

“This was the longest incidence of my career,” he said Tuesday, noting that the previous record was 60 hours for the pipeline explosion by the golf course in Cloquet.

“We taxed our people, burned them up fatigue-wise and used all our resources, but Jarden was able to start up Monday, so we consider this a win,” he said. “Now we just need to try and capture the lessons learned.”

Aul called the fire fighters heroes.

“Safety was the No. 1 priority, then it was about getting everyone back to work,” she said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”