The devastating fire Tuesday at Walcher Farms did as much as $3 million worth of damage.
Despite the huge loss, co-owner and general manager Ken Holthouse said there's "always a silver lining in every situation" and this might be one for the East Ohio 162 vegetable packing plant.
"Nobody wants to go through this, but thank goodness it happened Nov. 2 and not Aug. 2," he said.
Holthouse, of Willard, said the blaze cut the work season short by about two weeks, but now the farm can integrate better work flow and safety regulations with a fresh start. He said companies that handle vegetables are always under scrutiny and this could be an opportunity for improving the way Walcher Farms does business.
"The canvas is clean right now; we can paint it how we want," Holthouse said.
Brothers Ken and Kirk Holthouse and two cousins purchased Walcher Farms in February 2003. The business has been in existence since 1896.
"He (Walcher) started doing vegetables in 1986," said Ken Holthouse, who promised that this fire isn't the end of the business.
The late owner, Doug Walcher, died one day short of the fire eight years ago -- Nov. 3, 2002.
An estimated 75 to 100 firefighters from six departments battled the blaze.
Assisting the Fairfield Volunteer Fire Department were the New London Volunteer Fire Department, Norwalk Fire Department, Huron River and Tri-Community joint fire districts as well as Willard Fire & Rescue. Also on-scene were North Central EMS and an air truck from the Huron County Emergency Management Agency.
"We are pretty certain it started from a trash pile behind the building," Fairfield Volunteer Fire Chief Edward Eden said. "They were burning some trash in the back."
The point of origin was in the northeast corner of the cluster of about six buildings.
"They were all pretty much destroyed," said Eden, whose department was in charge.
While the chief said the blaze isn't suspicious in nature, he added: "I would call it careless."
Eden explained that wind blew the trash being burned in the back of one of the buildings into some of the wax-coated boxes, which ignited.
Farm co-owner Kirk Holthouse, at the scene, said after the fire started on the east side of the building, "the wind picked up and spread up to the other boxes and spread to the coolers."
"The only saving grace about it is our season is just about over. ... It's still pretty disheartening," he said.
Fighting the fire
The first call about the fire came in at 12:27 p.m. Tuesday. Fairfield was on the way four minutes later.
"In six or seven minutes, we were there," Eden said.
The Huron County Sheriff's Office received a 9-1-1 call at 12:27 p.m. in which the caller said "the fire has gotten out of control."
Norwalk was called for mutual aid at 12:43 p.m. Chief Doug Coletta said he could see a "large column of smoke" coming from Walcher Farm when his crew was about 5 miles away on Old State Road.
Firefighter Dave Wallace made 23 trips for water with the Norwalk tanker to a farmer's pond on Ohio 162, about a half-mile away from the farm. He estimated that all the departments made nearly 100 trips total.
While Eden didn't have an estimated number of gallons of water used, he said "it was an astronomical number."
"One fire department hauled at least 40,000 gallons. One hauled at least 38,000 gallons," Eden added. "We were pumping directly from the pond."
It took firefighters about 4 1/2 hours to control the blaze.
"We kept four guys there all night," Eden said. "There were a few (hot spots)."
The firefighters who were there overnight "were basically baby-sitting" some piles of cardboard which had been left to burn, Eden said.
An insurance investigator was at Walcher Farm on Wednesday.
Ken Holthouse said he didn't want to speculate on a damage estimate until the investigator has written his report.
Walcher Farms grows, packs and ships "fresh, green bell peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, and yellow squash from July through October," according to the Doug Walcher Farms Web site at http://drwalcherfarms.com/index..... "In late August they also begin shipping a full line of fall ornamentals, which include miniature gourds, orange and white mini-pumpkins, and ornamental corn and winter squashes."
Holthouse was asked what the next step for the business is. He said there are many options, including rebuilding at the same site or consolidating.
"No option is being ruled out," Holthouse said. "There have to be so many things to be done before we can answer that question."