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Evacuations lifted for Grant County town after ammonia tank threatened by fire at potato facility

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 22, 2021

A fire burning in a potato food production facility in Warden, Washington was approaching a large ammonia tank that authorities believed could cause a massive explosion, Grant County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Kyle Foreman said.  (Grant County Sheriff's Office)
A fire burning in a potato food production facility in Warden, Washington was approaching a large ammonia tank that authorities believed could cause a massive explosion, Grant County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Kyle Foreman said. (Grant County Sheriff's Office)
By Adam Shanks and Maggie Quinlan The Spokesman-Review

The Grant County Sheriff’s Office has lifted an evacuation order for Warden residents near a fire at the Washington Potato Facility after about a third of the town was threatened by an ammonia tank that could have exploded in the blaze.

The threat of an explosion has passed, the sheriff’s office posted to its Facebook page early Friday morning.

The source of officials’ alarm was an ammonia tank – now believed to have vented – at the Washington Potato grounds, where a fire sparked inside the processing plant’s dehydrator at about 5:30 p.m. on Thursday. The blaze then spread to the main building of the operation.

The facility is expected to be a total loss, according to Grant County Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson Kyle Foreman. The complex nature of the massive structure, the roof of which collapsed, has prevented firefighters from dousing the seed of the flames.

“It’ll be burning for several days,” Foreman said.

There were employees inside the facility at the time the fire was reported, but everyone was able to evacuate and no injuries have been reported, Foreman said.

The evacuation order Thursday night applied to residents west of Road U Southeast and south of State Route 170 in Warden. As of Friday afternoon, State Route 170 remained blocked to traffic just west of the facility.

Crews from multiple fire agencies throughout the region responded to assist.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Washington Potato Company has been affiliated with the Oregon Potato Company since 2001, according to the latter’s website, “significantly increasing our capacity and ability to supply customers of all sizes with premium quality dehydrated and dehydrofrozen potato products both domestically and throughout the world.”

A person who answered the phone at the Oregon Potato Company declined to comment and said the company’s media representatives would issue a statement.

Officials initially warned of a “very large” explosion possible at the ammonia tank.

The state Department of Ecology will send a spill responder to assess the scene once it is safe to do so, according to department spokesperson Joye Redfield-Wilder.

“We will be taking a look at the site to see what the chemical hazards might be,” Redfield-Wilder said.

In an alert email Thursday, law enforcement called the threat “severe – significant threat to life.” All people west of Road U Southeast and south of State Route 170 in Warden were warned to “GO NOW!” as emergency services couldn’t necessarily help people who decided to stay, the email said.

“We’re just standing back and waiting to see if that tank does explode,” Foreman said Thursday night.

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