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A Welding Torch Triggered A Kansas Meatpacking Plant Fire And A Price Spike Followed

GARDEN CITY, Kansas —A welding torch caused August’s fire at a Tyson meatpacking plant in western Kansas.

The Garden City Fire Department investigated the fire at the Holcomb plant and completed a report on Oct. 13, saying the fire was unintentional and likely started because a welding torch produced a “spark, ember or flame.”

Investigators could not determine whether the automatic extinguishing system turned on or how many sprinklers operated during the fire on Aug. 9.

Tyson spokeswoman Liz Croston said the company “will not be releasing an update on the cause of the fire.”

The Garden City Fire Department investigated the cause of the fire. Garden City Communications Manager Jamie Stewart said the city won’t release any further updates about the fire.

The Kansas State Fire Marshal’s Office does not investigate fires unless requested by local fire departments, according to spokeswoman Jill Bronaugh. And because no injuries were reported, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn’t investigate.

The plant stopped production after the fire, though it returned to limited production a few weeks later. The Tyson plant processed around 5% of beef in the U.S., and beef prices spiked after the fire. It prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate pricing margins. The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for an update on that investigation.

Holcomb Fire Chief Bill Knight remembers seeing black smoke inside the Tyson building on the night of the fire, which he said kept firefighters at the plant from 8:30 p.m. Aug. 9 to about 10 p.m. the next day.

Knight said he could smell burning cattle carcasses, which had been slaughtered prior to the fire.

“Now, you’ve got a hundred and some head of livestock hanging there upside down, and when they catch fire they melt and all that fat, grease … turns to a flammable liquid,” Knight said.

Knight said Tyson’s safety crew helped the firefighters find the electrical switches and valves on the scene. He also noted that some tanks of anhydrous ammonia had minor leaks during the fire, but said it was “nothing big.”

“And, like I say, the Tyson people were on top of that,” Knight said.

Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_boyer or or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

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Corinne Boyer is a reporter for the at High Plains Public Radio in Garden City, Kansas. Following graduation, Corinne moved to New York City where she interned for a few record labels, worked as a restaurant hostess and for a magazine publisher. She then moved to Yongin, South Korea where she taught English and traveled to Taiwan, Thailand, Belgium and South Africa. Corinne loved meeting new people and hearing their stories. Her travels and experiences inspired her to attend graduate school. In 2015, she graduated with a Master of Science in journalism degree from the University of Oregon. She gained her first newsroom experience at KLCC—Eugene’s NPR affiliate. In 2017, she earned the Tom Parker Award for Media Excellence for a feature story she wrote about the opioid epidemic in Oregon. That year, she was also named an Emerging Journalist Fellow by the Journalism and Women Symposium.
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