February 16, 2014

Fire breaks out at former creamery in Gustine

A fire broke out at an abandoned cheese plant Sunday morning, prompting authorities to evacuate 25 nearby homes.

A fire broke out at an abandoned creamery Sunday morning, prompting authorities to evacuate 25 nearby homes.

No injuries were reported.

According to Battalion Chief Jeremy Rahn of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the fire was reported at 7:05 a.m. at the former Land O’ Lakes facility at 240 North Ave. in Gustine. When firefighters arrived at the scene, they saw heavy smoke emanating from the 100,000-square-foot plant.

Part of the structure’s ceiling caved in during the blaze. Rahn said residents near the plant were evacuated because of the direction the smoke was traveling. City officials said the residents were taken to a local community center.

The plant was built in 1934 and operated by Beatrice Foods for several years before its sale in 2000. It has been vacant since 2005, Rahn said.

Because of concerns over smoke, authorities evacuated homes in the vicinity as 40 firefighters handled the blaze, Rahn said.

The plant’s value is estimated at $5.5 million. A damage estimate has not been determined.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. Authorities at the scene said the abandoned plant had been the site of recent break-ins.

According to Mayor Dennis Brazil, the plant employed about 150 people when it was operational.

Brazil said the building’s current owner lives in Denver, and the structure has been a frequent target of thieves, particularly for copper. He said the thefts alone have caused about $1 million in damage to the building, with control panels, wiring and other items taken from the aging structure.

Brazil said power to the building had been turned off prior to Sunday’s fire.

Two engines from the Gustine Fire Department, a ladder truck from the Los Banos Fire Department, an engine from the Newman Fire Department, eight engines from Calfire/Merced County Fire Department, four chiefs and the American Red Cross responded to the fire. Crews from Westside Ambulance were on standby at the scene.

“This is another example of good coordination between the local agencies,” Rahn said.

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