A fire at the Associated Milk Producers Inc. cheese plant in Portage, Wisconsin, destroyed this room that was used to store milk fat. As it was heated, the fat began to flow throughout the structure.
PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTAGE FIRE DEPARTMENT
A fire at the Associated Milk Producers Inc. cheese plant in Portage, Wisconsin, destroyed this room that was used to store milk fat. As it was heated, the fat began to flow throughout the structure. PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTAGE FIRE DEPARTMENT
PORTAGE, Wis. – On the evening of Jan. 2, the Associated Milk Producers Inc. cheese packaging plant in Portage caught fire. Thirty employees were in the plant at the time.
“Employees were immediately evacuated, and no one was injured,” said Sarah Schmidt, vice president of marketing at AMPI. “The fire was contained to an area on the second floor and extinguished that night.”
Upon arrival at the scene, the Portage Fire Department reported heavy smoke and fire coming from the roof of the dairy plant. Fire crews stretched lines to the entrance door but were pushed back by the heat and smoke. Unable to access the structure, they used their monitor to fight the fire until the Poynette and Kilbourne fire departments arrived with their aerial apparatus.
The fire started in a room where milk fat was being stored, and as it was heated, it began to flow throughout the structure. Fire crews attempted to gain access from each end of the structure to control the spread of the fire, but they were halted due to the heavy smoke and runoff.
Crews were on the scene until 3 a.m. Jan. 3 as a total of 10 fire departments worked to put out the fire. The fire was contained and extinguished before it could spread past the firewalls and throughout the building.
AMPI is the largest cheese cooperative based in the U.S. Headquartered in New Ulm, Minnesota, AMPI is owned by dairy farm families from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. Members annually market about 5 billion pounds of milk generating nearly $2 billion in sales.
The cooperative’s award-winning cheese, butter and powdered dairy products are produced at eight manufacturing locations in the Upper Midwest and marketed to foodservice, retail and food ingredient customers.
The Portage plant does not receive and process milk from member farms. Rather, this location produces and packages processed cheese in addition to packaging natural cheese for foodservice and ingredient customers. AMPI’s only butter plant is in New Ulm. No butter is produced at the Portage plant.
“While the term ‘butter’ has made headlines in connection to the fire, the actual product impacted was milk fat,” Schmidt said. “Milk fat is used as an ingredient when making processed cheese.”
The original plant was established in 1951, and AMPI North Central Region acquired this plant in 1972. Various additions and improvements have been made to the plant since that time.
“AMPI thanks local fire departments and first responders involved in controlling the fire,” Schmidt said. “We appreciate their professionalism and hard work as well as that of our employees under difficult circumstances. Their collective response protected the local canal; responders blocked street drains and placed absorbent materials in the canal to minimize milk fats.”
Cleanup was overseen by spill response professionals from the Department of Natural Resources, and AMPI continues to work closely with state and local officials. DNR staff report that approximately 20 gallons of fat entered the adjacent canal via a storm sewer. Absorbent booms were deployed in the canal to contain the discharged material, and the fat has since been removed.
The storm sewers are currently clear due to the volume of fire suppression water that flushed through them during the firefighting efforts. The DNR reports that so far, environmental impacts are minimal.
As of Jan. 6, the cause of the fire was under investigation, but foul play is not suspected, Schmidt said.
“We continue to assess damage at the plant and look forward to being back in production as soon as possible,” she said.