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Boiler explosion guts Hermiston potato chip plant

The Shearer’s Foods plant south of Hermiston still smolders Wednesday morning after a reported boiler explosion sparked a dramatic fire Tuesday afternoon at the snack food manufacturing facility. Courtesy: Brandon Artz.

One of the area’s largest manufacturers is gone, after a boiler explosion at Shearer’s Foods plant south of Hermiston sparked a dramatic fire Tuesday afternoon. Umatilla County Fire District 1 and the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office were called to the plant just before 1 p.m. after employees called 911 to report an explosion.

It’s believed that a portable boiler fueled by natural gas exploded. The plant supplies much of the Western U.S. with potato and corn chips. Good Shepherd Medical Center reported that seven people came to the hospital from Shearer’s Foods, according to the East Oregonian.

Shearer’s Human Resources Officer Joline Manning told the Herald in an email that firefighters were working to manage the remnants of the fire early Wednesday afternoon, and their focus is now on the impact on their employees and the community. Manning also said all employees had been treated and released.

Joline Manning:
 
"Our top priority is the health and safety of our team members and our neighbors in the surrounding community. We are grateful that all Shearer’s team members are safe. We appreciate the understanding of our neighbors in Hermiston who were impacted as a result of the fire and the outpouring of support that has been extended to our Shearer’s family."

"We are committed to providing assistance for all impacted employees and will do everything we can to limit the impact of the fire on our team members and the local community. We would like to thank the emergency responders and our local team for their efforts."
When it’s operating at full capacity, the plant employs up to 400 people, said Hermiston City Manager Byron Smith. It is one of the top employers in the Hermiston and Boardman areas. The fire shut down Highway 207 from the Space Age Truck Stop near Interstate 84, exit 182, to Feedville Road, the sheriff’s office said in a news release.

The plant, the former main plant of snack Alliance that was acquired by Shearer's Foods in 2010, is about 35 miles south of Tri-Cities. Authorities warned the truck stop and Comfort Inn, as well as the PanelView RV park they may need to evacuate if the smoke plume shifted. Union Pacific was also warned not to use the nearby railroad, according to Umatilla County Fire District #1.

At least one employee described it on Facebook as the "scariest thing in my life." Hermiston, Stanfield, and Oregon State Police, along with Umatilla County Emergency Management, the Oregon Department of Transportation, and Union Pacific Railroad were involved in the response to the fire. Umatilla County Fire District #1 said about 60 firefighters worked to combat the blaze.
 
The Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office and other emergency workers are on scene Tuesday of an explosion and fire at Shearer’s Foods in Hermiston. Courtesy: Umatilla county Sheriff

The Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office and other emergency workers are on scene Tuesday of an explosion and fire at Shearer’s Foods in Hermiston. Courtesy: Umatilla county Sheriff

Total Loss

While he is not familiar with all of the details from the fire, Smith said at the moment it looks like the main building is a total loss.

Byron Smith:
 
"It looks like everything is indicating that it is going to be a big loss, and we don’t know what the parent company will decide to do. But we know that 400 people roughly worked there, so it will have a big impact on the community."
The city will do whatever they can to help as they start looking at rebuilding. They already have been working with the Red Cross to help people living nearby. Smith said the city is thinking ahead to coordinating a job fair for Shearer’s employees to help them transition to another job.
 
An apparent boiler explosion at Shearer’s Foods plant south of Hermiston sparked a dramatic fire Tuesday afternoon at the snack foods manufacturing facility. Courtesy: Brandon Artz.

An apparent boiler explosion at Shearer’s Foods plant south of Hermiston sparked a dramatic fire Tuesday afternoon at the snack foods manufacturing facility. Courtesy: Brandon Artz.

Byron Smith:
 
"I don’t know how the company is going to handle it — if they will help workers for a while or keep a few to work through cleanup. We just don’t know a lot of those details."
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