Three big announcements were made last Friday night during Fruta del Fuego.
The event, a benefit for the employees of the Underwood Fruit Company, saw a large gathering of area residents in attendance. There was a live auction, a pie baking contest and bake sale, games for the kids, and a yummy dinner and drinks. Unofficially, the event raised around $5,000.
The most important part of the evening, however, was the announcement of two large donations and the updating of plans for Underwood Fruit Company.
WGAP Executive Director Leslie Naramore started the evening out right, announcing her organization had agreed to donate $30,000 of its discretionary funds to help Under-wood Fruit employees. This money has not yet been earmarked and will be put in the general fund for basic needs.
Naramore said, to date, WGAP has helped over 80 families with rent and utility bills.
In addition, Naramore has requested funding from the Klickitat County Commissioners for a financial literacy program which WGAP will coordinate in conjunction with Mid-Columbia Housing Authority. The Housing Authority will provide three financial literacy classes and WGAP will be doing in depth budget counseling and planning with employees who were laid off and are residents of Klickitat County. The contract is currently being drawn up for $6,380.
The second announcement came from Skyline Foundation board member Bob Weisfield. Last Wednesday night the Foundation, on a suggestion from Weisfield, unanimously voted to donate $25,000 toward meeting the healthcare needs of the families impacted by the Underwood Fruit fire. Exactly how these funds will be used and disbursed is yet to be determined.
“When the request was made to support our friends at Underwood Fruit Company, there wasn’t a board member who hesitated,” said Elizabeth Vaivoda, Skyline Foundation Executive Director. “It’s humbling to be part of an organization that gives back to our communities so freely and believes when we come together we can make a difference. My heart is full.”
When it was his turn to speak, Underwood Fruit and The Dalles Fruit Company Superintendent Ed Ing started by thanking all those individuals who have been so instrumental with the progress made by the company so far.
“It was a devastating fire for our operation. It was like losing your home,” he said. “I want to publicly thank all those who helped.”
He then thanked the 15 fire departments who were on site to fight the blaze, Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes who offered the company the use of Bingen City Hall for its temporary office headquarters, and Klickitat County EMS, which provided support and help wherever it could.
“We’re going to rebuild as quickly as possible,” Ing said. “We intend to stay in the community as a cherry, pear and apple packer. Our number one goal is re-employ all of our people.”
He further stated Underwood Fruit Company plans to be back in business by next year with buildings in place for next August’s crops.
“We have to move past what we had to what we will have,” he told the audience.
In an interview prior to speaking Friday night, Ing told The Enterprise the building currently going on at the fire site is not part of any new construction. What’s being built is a cover to protect the fire site from inclement weather conditions so that fire insurance investigators will not be hampered. No cause for the fire has yet been determined, but federal fire investigators have ruled out arson.
Ing said the fruit company’s new buildings will be erected to the east of the fire site, on property which has been recently cleared. Although the footprint is not as large as the original site, Ing said the company “would make do.” The fire site, he noted, will eventually house cold storage units.
To date, Ing said approximately 50 former employees are not working for Underwood Fruit. Approximately 100 employees have been re-employed but not necessarily with their same hours, same pay or same schedule, and approximately 80 employees (mostly equipment operators and apple line employees) are working their normal hours.
Work is occurring at the Bingen site where the apple lines were undamaged, shipping is occurring out of The Dalles Fruit Company site, and some work is being handled at Stadelman Fruit Company in Odell. Headquarters with all the usual technology is temporarily located in Dallesport.
Although heavily insured, Ing said the worst part of the fire is that all of the packed/ready to ship fruit was destroyed – four buildings worth. And, while Underwood Fruit may not be a huge fruit shipper, it plays a large role in the Northwest fruit business and would normally do a lot of business during the upcoming holiday season.
“Maintaining our position in the fruit markets is crucial to successfully handle our growers’ fruit that was undamaged in the fire. We are very grateful that our industry partners are allowing us to use alternative locations,” Ing said.