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Finley warehouse has burned for 7 weeks, Benton County Commissioners tell owners to fix it, faster

Hotspots at the Lineage Logistics fire in Finley, Washington, flared up Tuesday because of high winds. The fire has been burning for seven weeks.
Benton County Fire District 1
Hotspots at the Lineage Logistics fire in Finley, Washington, flared up Tuesday because of high winds. The fire has been burning for seven weeks.

6/10/24: This post has been updated with information from Lineage Logistics.

Smoke continues to make people sick in Finley, Washington, following a fire at the Lineage Logistics warehouse that has smoldered for seven weeks. Now, Benton County Commissioners are telling the warehouse’s owners to move faster to fix the problem.

Commissioner Will McKay said Lineage Logistics is hauling 60 truckloads of debris out each day from the smoldering warehouse, but that’s not enough.

“The frustrating part, for me, is they don’t have the crews working 24 hours, at night and stuff,” McKay said in an interview.

In a FAQ website Lineage Logistics posted on Friday evening, the company argued it could not work around the clock because it would be dangerous for specialized crews to work at night. Instead, the company is installing lighting to extend working hours.

In addition, the company said, clearing or treating certain areas of the fire requires approval from fire investigators or local agencies, which aren’t around all hours of the day.

“We recognize the profound impact the fire at our Kennewick facility has had on the community and everyone who lives here. Many of our Lineage team members are Finley and Kennewick residents themselves, and both our local and national leadership are focused on marshaling resources to accelerate fire recovery efforts,” Lineage officials wrote in an emailed statement.

The massive cold storage warehouse held racks of frozen vegetables, including potatoes, corn, peas and carrots. After the fire that started April 21, all that debris turned into mush piled 30 feet high. The 12-acre warehouse is so large it’s been hard for firefighters to get to all that burning material.

It’s still not clear what caused the Lineage Logistics warehouse fire. It’s believed to be the largest structure fire the Tri-Cities area has ever seen.

When the fire started, Lineage said, it initially disrupted the regional food supply chain. Now, though, the company has diverted millions of pounds of food that would have been sent to the Tri-Cities area.

In a June 5 letter to Lineage Logistics, Benton County Commissioners pushed Lineage to clean up the debris faster, saying local noise ordinances wouldn't apply to the situation.

“The Board of County Commissioners cannot stress enough the urgency of this situation, its negative impacts on the surrounding Finley community, and encourage you to operate clean-up activities on a 24-hour a day rotation for the health, safety, and welfare of the community,” the letter stated.

The commissioners also asked for better communication from Lineage Logistics.

Until recently, the company has been quiet about responding to the community. It declined to attend a community meeting May 29 about the fire.

“We also understand concerns expressed by Finley, Kennewick and surrounding area community members that they haven’t felt Lineage’s presence in the public discussion. Please know it isn’t because we haven’t wanted to be highly communicative; rather it’s because it is a very complex and fluid situation that we take very seriously, and we didn’t want to provide you with incomplete or misleading information,” the company stated on its response website.

The company declined to attend a community meeting May 29 about the fire. They also did not respond to interview requests.

The Benton County Fire District 1 continues to monitor the fire at least once a day and has sent crews out when there is smoldering debris that firefighters can reach, said Fire Chief Scott LoParco at a May 29 community meeting.

“The problem is that it’s a 500-foot wide building, 1,000-feet long, roughly,” LoParco said. “Even our tallest ladder truck at full threshold only reaches about 150 feet in. So that still leaves 100 feet by 800 feet down the middle that we can’t touch.”

In addition, the 30-foot pile of debris is incredibly insulated, LoParco said. Firefighting crews have sprayed around 400 million gallons of water on top of one hotspot, he said. Later, crews found completely frozen boxes of french fries deep under the pile.

“Even if we used helicopters, it’s not going to reach down to pallets that are burning inside (the pile),” LoParco said.

Some products, such as the frozen french fries, also are coated in oil, McKay said, making it important for fire crews to not just splash water from a helicopter.

Signal Restoration Services, a demolition contractor for Lineage, has removed truckloads of steel and food products, which has helped firefighters to reach farther into the warehouse, according to Benton County Fire District 1.

Lineage said demolition crews are using over 40 heavy duty vehicles, like bulldozers and excavators.

High winds this week have stirred up more smoke in the area, and people in Finley say the smoke continues to make them sick with bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia.

“We have five people in three households who didn’t have any of these issues beforehand,” said Finley resident Dana Baker.

The Benton Franklin Health District and volunteers pass out air filters, box fans and N95 masks to people in Finley.
Benton Franklin Health District
The Benton Franklin Health District and volunteers pass out air filters, box fans and N95 masks to people in Finley.

The Benton-Franklin Health District has passed out N95 masks, box fans and air filters to help residents deal with the smoke. Recent air tests show no detectable levels of hydrogen sulfide and other volatile organic compounds in the smoke.

The state Department of Ecology last week installed a permanent air monitor at Finley Middle School to gauge small particles in the air, known as particulate matter 2.5.

Those tiny particles are present in smoke and can be harmful for people with heart and lung conditions and for people who are pregnant.

As crews are better able to reach the smoldering mass at the center of the facility, the smoke should start to clear, the company said on its website.

The Benton-Franklin Health Department has asked Lineage Logistics to sample wastewater coming off the fire.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.