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Madison 'Butter Fire' Remembered 20 Years Later | News

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Madison 'Butter Fire' Remembered 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago, the largest fire in Madison's history broke out, and it took crews two days to get it under control and eight days to extinguish the blaze.



See Images Of Madison 'Butter Fire'

What became known as the Great Madison Butter Fire has sparked changes in how the Madison Fire Department prepares for major incidents.

The fire is still remembered not just because of the size of the blaze itself but also for the mess it made.

Looking back 20 years isn't all that hard for Lt. Gordy Berggren, of the Madison Fire Department. He said he easily remembers the biggest fire he's ever seen, which broke out on May 3, 1991 on Madison's East Side.

"We didn't think we were going to see the volume of fire," Berggren said. "So I think all of us were kind of shocked, really."

When Berggren and others first arrived at the scene of the fire at the Central Storage and Warehouse, there was only smoke and no one seemed to know exactly what was burning.

"You know, I think it was about the next day we figured out it was butter, once it started to come out," Berggren said. "And it literally came out, in gushes, I mean, (it was) like a dam opened up."

Firefighters battling the blaze had to slog through a river of butter for days.

"(You'd) leave on Tuesday, come back on Thursday and it's still on fire," Berggren said.

"It's like a football field of flames," said Fred Kinney, retired assistant fire chief at the Madison Fire Department.

Kinney was in command the day the Central Storage Warehouse started burning, when a forklift battery shorted out.

Tucked in the corner between Stoughton and Cottage Grove roads, the cold storage facility sprawled across more than 200,000 square feet.

"We knew in advance it was a building that wasn't structurally sound, just kind of a shell building they kept refrigerated products in, so we didn't want to get anybody inside," Kinney said.

It didn't take long before the first wall came thundering down.

"Hot dogs literally exploded out of the back end of that. Once the front roof collapsed, there were guys running backwards and getting passed up by cases of hotdogs," Berggren said.

"It was one of those moments in news where you go, 'We're on a pretty big story here,'" said Joel DeSpain, who spent nearly 25 years at WISC-TV and was the first report at the scene. "At that point, we had no idea this was going to be a story that had legs, that would go on for a couple of months."

As the 20 million pounds of stored butter burned, essentially turning the warehouse into a giant deep fryer on fire, the problems grew.

The Department of Natural Resources had to build a dam before any of the butter could get into the lakes. At one point, the neighborhood was evacuated for fear an anhydrous ammonia tank could explode.

"As a firefighter, you want to go and put the fire out, and when you can't put the fire out, and when you can't put the fire out, you feel like you're not getting your job done," Kinney said.

Berggren said the job sometimes felt impossible with all the liquefied butter, cheese and lard in the way.

"So the rigs got stuck. There was no moving the rigs once that butter came out," Berggren said.

Berggren recalled that he ended up in an even deeper mess.

"So when I was following a line back, I slipped into a hole that was roughly up to my neck and it was all butter," he said.

"To see it starting to come tumbling down was pretty amazing and scary," said Jack Williams, VP of operations for Central Storage and Warehouse.

Just last year, Central Storage and Warehouse finally finished rebuilding every last square foot.

Williams said he remembers his dad, the owner, facing millions in losses and considering bankruptcy

"It was rather scary for a while, not knowing," Williams said. "Through litigation and the final settlement we ended up being able to stay open and expand."

Berggren said it's plain to see what the city learned from the experience.

"I think the conditions right now for us, in my 23 years here, are some of the best I've ever worked under. Twenty years ago we were short staffed," Berggren said. "You pass these stories on; you pass these tips on, because learning it on the job is hazardous."

The fire resulted in nearly $100 million in property and product loss. It was also one of the most expensive fires the city had ever fought.

One reason for the high cost was the when it was all over, it was impossible to get the butter out of the turnout gear. It all had to be replaced, and every firefighter also got a spare set. By today's prices, that would cost about $400,000.

Fire officials said that since the fire, they spend more time training and educating themselves about target hazards, which is what they call specific sites with potential to pose big problems.


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