A press release from Klickitat County Emergency Management mid last week contained seriously bad news: “At approximately 5:45 this morning, Wednesday, October 18, 2017 an Industrial fire broke out at the Underwood Fruit & Warehouse Co. on the west end of Bingen, WA.”
At the time and throughout most of the day, the fire was contained to one building, the pear processing plant. The fire did reach some low hanging power lines, which plunged much of Bingen into a power outage for most of the day; residents reported sightings of exploding transformers.
While there were no official evacuation orders put in place, some businesses at the Port of Klickitat chose to self evacuate, citing concerns of the fire reaching other buildings that contained hazardous material.
According to Klickitat County Emergency Management, “11 Klickitat County fire departments, Burlington Northern Santa Fe fire train, Hood River Fire Department, Skamania Fire Department, and Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue are involved in the firefighting efforts.”
At about 4:45 p.m. Klickitat County Emergency Management issued another statement. “The fire is still contained to one building. However due to structural instability the fire continues to burn on the interior.” This made it unsafe for firefighters to enter the structure causing the decision to let the fire burn itself out to be made. Fire Command said to expect flare-ups throughout the remainder of the day.
During the White Salmon City Council meeting, City Operations Manager Kevin English advised that the fire had spread to another building, that commanders had determined that building could not be saved without putting fire-fighters at risk. Fire Command also announced it had asked the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) to investigate the cause of the fire, which is yet to be determined.
Underwood Fruit has been in Bingen since 1917, the plant itself has been there since the 1920s, and is considered one of the larger employers of locals in Klickitat County.
According to Alma Macias, of Underwood Fruit Company (UFC) Human Resources, 283 people have been laid off due to the fire. She said they can file for unemployment benefits, but it is a difficult process be-cause many of them are seasonal employees.
Sixty or so employees returned to work on a part-time basis on Oct. 24 to work on the apple line, as it remained untouched by the fire, whereas the pear line was completely destroyed.
“The biggest concern that I’m hearing is that people are very concerned about losing their insurance. We are trying to negotiate with our insurance company to be able to keep people insured until UFC is open again. Right now we are hoping to be rebuilt and operational by August 2018,” said Macias.
“Once we are fully operational again any former employee’s will be welcomed back,” she added.
In an effort to help those affected by the fire find work, the company WorkSource also stayed open during the weekend.
Leslie Naramore, of Washington Gorge Action Programs (WGAP,) has established a GoFundMe account, https://www.gofundme.com/ underwoodfruitfire, to raise money for those affected by the fire, which, as of 1:35 p.m. Oct. 24, had raised $14,500 with a goal of $15,000. Many residents have made direct donations to WGAP that have been ear-marked for Underwood Fruit Fire Victims.
“I’ve been astounded with the results,” Naramore said.
“All of the money donated for UFC will be used to directly benefit UFC employees. It will not be sup-porting any WGAP program. When UFC employees come in for help, we will verify that they were an employee and then any needs that they have can be taken care of. WGAP will pay bills on their behalf directly to the vendor as well,” she continued.