20 Years Ago Today: Central Storage & Warehouse Fire

Published: May. 3, 2011 at 8:58 AM CDT
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UPDATED: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 -- 5:30 p.m.

Twenty years ago, a massive fire became a part of Madison history.

The fire on Madison's East Side was the lead story on NBC15 News May 3rd, 1991.

Flames broke out late afternoon at the Central Storage and Warehouse Company on Cottage Grove Road.

At one point, about 3,000 residents within a half mile radius were evacuated as the fire threatened chemical tanks.

Two days after it started, the fire was declared under control.

It became known as the great butter fire.

NBC15 has a look back at the Madison fire department's biggest and toughest fire to date.

One of the first firefighters on the scene remembers it vividly... and those who've come after him also know all about this unforgettable inferno.

Two decades later a construction sign stands outside of Central Storage.

Part of the facility was rebuilt only last year.

It all still sits a block away from Station Five: the East Side firehouse known for its role in the great butter fire.

"Every time you drive by, you still kind of look over there... and glance where you were," says Lt. Gordon Berggren.

Berggren had been with Madison Fire for three years when he responded from another station.

"A lot of times, you can tell how big a fire is just by what you see coming in the distance... and you could tell this was going pretty good," he says.

The sprawling 500,000 square foot site housed butter, cheese and meats.

"...it went fast ... we got the alarm .. the first units...block away ... they pulled up ... flames 300 feet high ...and part of the building had blown out already," a firefighter said back in 1991, at the scene.

"The first crew in actually got passed by cans of hams... things went shooting out around them throughout this big warehouse dock," Lt. Berggren remembers.

Berggren says the butter fueled the flames,and created challenges.

"Two - three feet of butter you're wading through... some of our lines got cut off... we couldn't find where our equipment was."

A photographer captured him in the giant mess.

"Once the walls caved in, it came out like a river," Berggren says of the butter.

Crews were forced to fight the fire from the outside.

"That made it very difficult to get in and extinguish the fire because the roof and walls were basically protecting the fire from our streams."

It was declared officially out eight days after it started accidentally.

"The smell comes back once in a while .. even here. It was a really bad smell and I really honestly still don't eat hot dogs to this day because of that.," Berggren says.

Remarkably, no one was seriously injured.

Crews say the fire offered lessons about having adequate sprinklers in buildings and building safer structures.


Posted Tuesday, May 3, 2011 --- 9:00 a.m.

From the Madison Fire Department:

Central Storage & Warehouse Fire - On May 3, 1991, at 3:31 pm, the MFD responded to a fire at the Central Storage & Warehouse Company, 4309 Cottage Grove Road.

The complex, a cold storage facility consisting of five buildings totaling nearly 500,000 square feet, contained approximately 50 million pounds of food products.

Upon arrival to the scene flames were already shooting high into the sky and a second alarm was requested. The fire was originally limited to one building as firefighters attacked it from all sides. Just as ten firefighters and two apparatus were moved from the east side of the structure, the wall collapsed on their previous position.

The fire, fueled by the stored butter, lard, and cheese, continued to gain momentum; water had little effect on it. The melted food products caused additional problems as they mixed with water and flowed away from the building towards Starkweather Creek.

Appropriate environmental agencies were called in to assist in minimizing the damage to the environment.

By 6:00 pm the fire had spread to a second building and a third alarm was made. With 70 firefighters at the scene, off-duty personnel were called into man vacated stations. Additional off-duty personnel were requested to report to the staging area of Station No. 5.

At 11:00 pm the second building collapsed.

At midnight, with the fire threatening the facility's anhydrous ammonia tanks, an evacuation of approximately 3,000 residents within a 1/2 mile radius was ordered.

By 3:30 am the fire had been pushed back from the area of the ammonia tanks and the evacuation was changed to an advisory. At noon, the MFD requested mutual aid (fifty volunteers responded) from surrounding communities to give MFD firefighters a short break to recover.

On May 5 at 10:00 am, the blaze was declared "under control", but continued to smolder under tons of rubble.

By 6:00 pm the fire was down-graded to a "fire watch" with 12 firefighters on the scene to extinguish hot spots as construction crews cleared away wreckage.

On May 7, fire/arson investigators were able to determine the fire was accidental and that the origin of the fire to be in and around a battery propelled forklift.

On May 11, eight days after the start of the fire, the fire was declared "officially out". Losses were estimated at $7.5 million in property damages, $70 million in contents, and nearly $1 million in clean-up costs.

This blaze was without argument the largest and most difficult fire the MFD has ever fought.