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Updated: Fri, 18 Jul 2014 12:02:36 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Bonduelle fire in Tecumseh leads to local state of emergency, evacuation



At least three municipalities, including Windsor, are battling a massive fire at the former Green Giant plant in Tecumseh Katia Augustin/CBC News

At least three municipalities, including Windsor, are battling a massive fire at the former Green Giant plant in Tecumseh Katia Augustin/CBC News

Tecumseh Mayor Gary McNamara has declared a local state of emergency as a massive fire burns at the large Bonduelle food-processing plant in his southern Ontario town.

No injuries have been reported.

But McNamara was concerned because there is a large amount of ammonia in the Bonduelle plant that has been burning since 2 a.m. ET Friday, east of Windsor. He estimates there are more than 2,250 kilograms (5,000 pounds) of ammonia in the building.

There was a small ammonia leak but it has been taken care of, fire officials say.

However, the town officials issued a statement saying the evacuation order will remain in effect until at least noon, "due to the potential airborne toxins."

As a precaution, the Tecumseh Fire Department is asking residents in the area of the plant, at the intersection of Tecumseh Road and Lacasse Boulevard, to close all windows and doors.

Police are telling people to stay one kilometre away from the scene.

Tecumseh Fire and Rescue Services has issued an evacuation notice for residents and businesses in the vicinity of the plant.

Residents between County Road 22 to the south, St. Thomas Road to the north and Lesperance Road west to Manning Road are to leave the area.

Residents forced from the area, where McNamara has his home, are asked to head to the Tecumseh Arena, as well as as well as St. Joseph’s School.

Windsor. Social Services and the Red Cross are organizing resident reception at both locations. The Windsor-Essex Humane Society will also be at these facilities to assist with pets.

The evacuation order includes 1,300 homes.

Frank Pitre lives in the evacuation area. He heard sirens at 2 a.m. and went outside to find flames more than three metres high.

Pitre said he wasn't scared until he heard about the ammonia tanks and small leak. That's when he left the area.

CBC News meteorologist Jay Scotland says winds in southern Ontario are calm this morning.

Four municipalities, including Windsor, Ont., are battling the massive fire.

Tecumseh fire said its crews will be fighting fire at Bonduelle well into the night. Progress is being made slowly in extinguishing fire.

Officials said fire crews need to put out hot spots from the inside but they're holding off because of concerns about the possibility of walls collapsing.

The plant was originally owned by Green Giant, and has changed many hands since Bonduelle took it over. 

"We’re telling people to stay away as much as they can," McNamara said before declaring the local state of emergency. "They have to fight it defensively because it’s so fully involved."

At least 20 trucks were on scene, he said.

Black smoke could be seen across the area, from as far away as west Windsor.

The roof has collapsed and damage is extensive. Fire officials said the roof collapsed one hour into fighting the fire.

McNamara said more than 200,000 square feet, including the dry goods warehouse and freezer area, are affected by the blaze.

They said the fire appears to have started in the freezer section of the facility. They initially thought the cause was linked to the electrical system, but now they're not certain about that. 

Gabrielle Blanchette was working in the plant when the fire broke out.

“It’s like seeing money burn and it doesn’t feel right," Blanchette said.

"The Bonduelle staff, the supervisors, did a good job at keeping us safe,” she said. “At first, I thought it was contained. But around 6:30 a.m., it was huge, insane."

Kathy Arigan works in the freezer. She was scheduled to work at 6 a.m. Friday, but received a call telling her all shifts were cancelled.

She came to the plant anyway.

“I needed to see the reality of this place. When you work here, you become a family. And when something happens, you want to support them however you can,” she said.

Arigan described the scene as tragic and devastating.

“I truly do hope they can and do rebuild because this is a great facility, a great facility to work at,” she said.

'This is devastating'

Air monitoring is underway at the plant and will continue throughout the day, the Tecumseh Fire Department said.

McNamara said the Bonduelle plant in his municipality employs up to 700 people during peak production and is worth $40 million annually to the town. Another 450 farming families across Ontario supply fruits and vegetables to the plant.

McNamara said the plant is currently processing peas, but they also process carrots, corn, rice and meal packs. 

"For years and years, they provided a lot of good jobs for our community. We’re devastated by the loss," McNamara said. "It's been here 80 years, providing good jobs for our community and certainly the region.

"This is devastating for the full-time employee. And we’re just on the upswing of the co-packing right now. They’re gearing up for full production."

McNamara said the president of Bonduelle is taking a flight from Quebec on Friday morning. A joint news conference including  town and company officials will be held later.

Maureen Facca, a nearby resident, watched the plant burn for the second time in her life.

She was a child when the plant went up in flames in the 1970s.

Green Giant owned the plant when it burned on Oct. 3, 1973. The fire caused $10,000,000 in damages, according to the Tecumseh Fire Department.

"I can’t believe it’s happening for a second time. It’s a large employer in the community and it’s important," Facca said. "Hopefully they stay in the community and can rebuild. You always know someone that’s working there."

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