Report: Burning Warehouse Staff Delayed Calling Firefighters

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — Managers of a burning warehouse, which rapidly became so engulfed that flames threatened nearby homes, waited a day before calling the local fire department for help, Georgia state investigators said in a report.

A giant pile of wood pellets awaiting export at the Port of Brunswick caught fire in early May and destroyed the vast warehouse where they were being stored. No one was injured, but firefighters shut off gas lines to nearby homes and remained at the scene for weeks to make sure flames didn’t rekindle.

Georgia state investigators sharply criticized the company that operates the warehouse, Logistec, in a report of their preliminary findings. They learned the Montreal-based company “utilized a private `fire brigade’ for approximately a day” before alerting the Brunswick Fire Department.

In this May 2, 2021 photo, smoke pours from a warehouse where a large pile of wood pellets caught fire at the Port of Brunswick in Brunswick, Ga. (Terry Dickson/The Brunswick News via AP)

“The fire grew rapidly and dangerous to the surrounding residences and warehouses,” the report read. “Ultimately the fire grew out of control and caused a violent explosion. Several neighboring fire departments responded to assist.”

Brunswick Fire Chief Randy Mobley said the fire would likely have been less severe had his department known to respond earlier.

“We should have been called,” Mobley told The Brunswick News. “If we would have been called sooner, they would probably still have a warehouse.”

Logistec did not immediately respond to email messages seeking comment. The investigators’ report said Logistec managers had “downplayed the hazards associated with the storage of these pellets stating that they are generally safe.”

The company told Georgia officials it stores and exports about 1 million tons (0.9 metric tonnes) of wood pellets each year using warehouses on property leased from the Georgia Ports Authority. The wood pellets are shipped to countries in Europe where they are used to fuel power plants.

The investigators for Georgia’s insurance and safety fire commissioner said preliminary findings suggest the wood pellets spontaneously combusted after they began to decompose. Their report said the pellets may have been piled too high inside the warehouse, with their sheer weight causing compression that increased the risk of fire.

At a meeting June 2, Logistec managers told state investigators “they follow all industry prescribed standards,” the report said.

Yet the fire in May wasn’t the company’s first in Brunswick. The port warehouse that burned last month was built in 2016 to replace two buildings destroyed by a previous wood-pellet fire in July 2015.

Before the new warehouse was destroyed, firefighters responded to smaller wood-pellet fires there in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

The state investigators found no sign that Logistec had ever applied to the insurance commissioner’s office for a permit to store materials — such as wood pellets — that pose a risk for fire or explosion from combustible dust. They also reported that the company’s storage facilities at the Port of Brunswick failed to meet standards of the International Fire Code or the National Fire Protection Association.

“Logistec was required to have (Office of Commissioner of Insurance) permits to store wood pellets,” said Weston Burleson, a spokesman for the state insurance commissioner’s office. “And, while our investigation is still ongoing, it appears they never did secure those permits.”

Burleson said the investigation hasn’t been completed and it’s too early to say whether state officials might take action against Logistec. He said the company’s suppliers have suspended shipments of wood pellets until it’s determined the company can store them safely.

During a tour of Logistec’s storage facilities, investigators reported seeing larges piles of dust around a hopper and conveyor belt system. Brunswick Fire Chief Randy Mobley, who joined the tour, told them a spark from the conveyor could ignite the dust like gunpowder. He also said the warehouses didn’t have enough water connections for fire hoses.

When Logistec managers pressed the officials about when they might resume storing and exporting wood pellets, the report said, “Chief Mobley was adamantly opposed to allowing operation under current conditions.”

Investigators recommended that Logistec meet several conditions before being allowed to resume operations at the Port of Brunswick. They included calling firefighters immediately if wood pellets catch fire or smolder, using fire-resistant barriers to separate piles of wood pellets in storage and developing in six months a plan to comply with state and national standards on combustible dust.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of wood pilots stored and exported by the warehouse.