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Fire breaks out at Cromwell peat business

It took Cromwell-Wright firefighters and reinforcement from five other local fire departments more than six hours to put out a fire at a Cromwell peat business last Thursday, partly because of the way peat burns and partly because of the cold temperatures.

“It’s just exhausting, mentally and physically, to fight fire in the cold,” said Mike Peterson, assistant fire chief for the Cromwell-Wright fire district. “[The fire] likes to rekindle in the cold. You’d think it would work in our favor, but it hides. We have infrared cameras to see the hotspots, but in the cold, it hides.”

The fire broke out at Premier Horticulture, which processes and packages agricultural peat for use as lawn fertilizer, at approximately 2 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12.

Cromwell-Wright Fire Chief Lucas Goodin said five additional fire departments — Mahtowa, Kettle River, Carlton, Barnum and Moose Lake — responded to the fire, bringing the total number of firefighters to 25 or 30.

Goodin said the firefighters were well prepared, because they meet with Premier Horticulture (located on Kalli Road in Cromwell) every year to pre-plan how to tackle such fires because peat fires are very different from structure fires.

Assistant Cromwell-Wright Fire Chief Mike Peterson explained that peat dust is a lot like grain dust.

“It’s a living product that’s rotting and can put off gas,” he said. “It can actually even explode spontaneously.”

That’s not what happened Thursday, he said, adding that peat fires can be difficult to detect. The fire smells, but there’s no visible flame and usually no smoke either. On Thursday, there were occasional billows of smoke.

Staff at Premier detected the fire because of the smell, Peterson said.

Peat dust had built up between the ceiling and the roof of the building and that’s what was burning, Peterson said.

“The insulation had absorbed all this peat dust over the years, and it was the dust that was burning, and the paper on the insulation,” he said, noting that it takes very high temperatures to burn fiberglass insulation, so that wasn’t on fire.

Firefighters can’t simply turn a hose on a peat fire, however. If they do that, it will spread more sparks around and create a bunch of small fires.

They initially tried to attack the fire from below the ceiling, without much success, Peterson said. Lt. Gene Lott told WDIO-TV that the water pressure from the hoses was able to spread the fire throughout other parts of the ceiling. When the ladder truck from Carlton arrived, the firefighters decided to go through the roof, using piercing nozzles that they pounded into the tin roof and spraying a combination of foam and water.

Peterson explained that peat will repel water, in much the same way that a duck’s feathers do.

“But the foam breaks it down so the water can be absorbed,” Peterson said. “It breaks down the surface tension. The foam makes the water wetter.”

Firefighters opened nearly a dozen holes in the roof, and finally determined the fire was under control around 8 p.m. There were no reports of injuries.

Although the cause of the fire is still under investigation, Goodin noted that workers had been using equipment that may have produced sparks. There isn’t a damage estimate yet.

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