Hundreds of employees were evacuated from the E.&J. Gallo Winery glass plant Thursday after a fire broke out in one of the bottle-making furnaces and sent thick columns of smoke over Modesto's airport neighborhood and south toward Ceres.
No serious injuries were reported from the fire at the South Santa Cruz Avenue plant. The smoke was visible from downtown Modesto.
It's the third reported fire at the plant in 17 months. The fires were in different furnaces and had different causes, said Susan Hensley, a Gallo spokeswoman.
The fire was first reported about 12:40 p.m. It started after a mechanical failure occurred in the furnace, said Battalion Chief Paul Spani of the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District.
He said there was a failure in a chute that carries molten glass from a tank to the start of the bottle-making process. The chute instead spilled the molten glass, starting the fire.
"Apparently, it was a big (mechanical) failure," Spani said. "It spilled the molten glass into a containment area underneath the furnace."
Hensley said the electrical furnace was installed about 14 months ago. Plant officials need to assess the damage before they can determine when it will be back in operation.
She said all the employees were evacuated and sent to designated areas where they could be accounted for. From 300 to 400 people were working at the plant when the fire started.
"Our first concern is always our employees' safety," Hensley said.
Most of the employees waited for about about two hours in the shade near the plant's main office just inside the gates near South Santa Cruz Avenue and Oregon Drive. Some concerned relatives of employees went to the plant to make sure their loved ones were safe.
Hensley said two workers were taken to local hospitals as a precaution but were expected to be released Thursday night. She said one employee fell and hit her head as she was evacuated, and the second inhaled smoke.
As some firefighters worked to put out the fire, others sprayed water on the steel structure to keep it cool and ensure it wouldn't collapse, Spani said.
It took about three hours for firefighters to get the fire under control, he said. No firefighters were injured.
Several firefighting agencies assisted Stanislaus Consolidated in putting out the fire.
Glass melts, hardens
Spani said the spilled molten glass had hardened, and there appeared to be significant damage to the machinery.
"They're basically going to have to chip away to remove all the hardened glass," Spani said.
By 3:30 p.m., Hensley said, employees were allowed to return to work in three of the five furnaces at the plant. She said furnace No. 4 sustained some water damage and furnace No. 5 sustained fire damage.
This wasn't the first time emergency crews have been called to the plant.
In June 2008, four employees were injured after a fire broke out in a furnace room.
In March 2008, fire crews were called to the plant after a similar fire ignited in a different furnace. This time, no injuries were reported.
In 2006, firefighters manned an 18-hour watch at the plant after another furnace spilled molten glass into a safety tank. No injuries were reported from that incident.
The glass plant churns out 2.5 million bottles a day. The bottle-making plant, built in 1958 and continually updated, is the largest single-site producer of glass containers in the world.
Worker feared for drivers
The plant supplies bottles to the adjacent E.&J. Gallo Winery as well as other companies.
Gudberto Meza of Ceres said he works in the furnace that caught fire. Thursday was his day off, so he rushed over to the glass plant and stood on South Santa Cruz Avenue waiting to make sure his co-workers had made it out safely.
He said the temperature inside the multifloor furnace can reach up to 220 degrees, and that the molten glass is about 900 degrees.
"I walked out of the Home Depot in Ceres and then I saw all the smoke," Meza said in Spanish. "I was worried about the workers inside, especially the workers who drive the forklifts in the basement. I was told they all made it out OK."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.