$2 mil­lion in losses re­ported af­ter fire at Hil­mar Cheese Co.

Merced Sun-Star (Saturday) - - Atwater Signal - BY CRESENCIO RO­DRIGUEZ-DEL­GADO cdel­[email protected]­nobee.com Cresencio Ro­driguez-Del­gado: 559-441-6304, @cres_guez

A large fire broke out Satur­day at a plant op­er­ated by Hil­mar Cheese Co. — a busi­ness in Merced County that’s one of the largest cheese pro­duc­ers in the state.

The fire erupted around noon and took fire­fight­ers nearly two hours to put out. The fire ig­nited in­side one of the com­pany’s three cheese plants. That build­ing in­cludes an assem­bly line that com­presses cheese, ac­cord­ing to Cal Fire Bat­tal­ion Chief Baraka Carter.

No in­juries were re­ported. The com­pany’s vis­i­tor cen­ter — which in­cludes a cafe — at the cheese com­pany were all evac­u­ated. The plant that caught fire is lo­cated be­hind the vis­i­tor cen­ter, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany’s mar­ket­ing direc­tor Gwen Bar­getzi.

She said the fire was con­tained to the rooftop and did not spread to other fa­cil­i­ties.

The fire mainly im­pacted the pump sys­tem at the plant. It’s be­lieved the cause of the fire may be me­chan­i­cal, though it’s still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The com­pany is con­duct­ing its own in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Carter and Bar­getzi said.

The fire sent heavy flames and smoke from the top of the plant, which is about three sto­ries tall. The smoke could be seen for miles, Carter said.

About 20 fire­fight­ers re­sponded to the blaze, which was con­tained at around 2:30 p.m. Satur­day.

Carter said the fire is ex­pected to cost the com­pany an es­ti­mated $2 mil­lion in losses, though Bar­getzi was un­able to con­firm that fig­ure.

Carter said there was dam­age to the build­ing, equip­ment, ma­chin­ery and the cheese prod­uct. “It was a sig­nif­i­cant fire,” he added.

It’s un­clear how many work­ers were on hand Satur­day.

The plant that caught fire will be out of ser­vice un­til the me­chan­i­cal is­sues are fixed, ac­cord­ing to Carter, but other op­er­a­tions at the cheese com­pany were ex­pected to re­sume.

The other plants con­tin­ued pro­duc­tion dur­ing the fire. “We are do­ing all the proper due dili­gence when you make food. We want to make sure that safety comes first,” Bar­getzi said.

The com­pany pro­duces about a mil­lion pounds of cheese a day be­tween its two sites, in Hil­mar and Texas.

JOAN BAR­NETT LEE [email protected]­bee.com

Hil­mar Cheese in Hil­mar, Ca.

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