WALLA WALLA - Flames shot more than 50 feet in the air, as three fire departments fought a fully engulfed mountain of legumes on Friday night.
Two warehouse buildings at Blue Mountain Seed, Inc., 203 E. Oak St., each approximately 80 feet in length and 40 feet wide, housed hundreds of tons of dry chickpeas - the fuel for the fire that took two hours to control.
The fire was called in around 11 p.m.; only minutes before neighbors said they heard an explosive sound.
"I didn't know what the boom was. But there was a boom, and 20 to 30 minutes later the next thing I know the whole block is hustling and bustling with people," neighbor Suzanne Rogers said.
Walla Walla Fire Department Capt. Steve Sickles said the fire was under control around 1 p.m., but far from out, as smoldering sections buried deep in stacked apple bins or loose piled mounds continued to burn through the night and all day Saturday.
Adding to the number of neighbors affected, an early morning inversion trapped smoldering chickpea smoke, forcing the white cloud to cling close to city streets and fan out in a northwest direction all the way to the Washington State Penitentiary, 1.2 miles away.
The neighbors most affected lived only several feet from the warehouse, on the west side of the 500 block of North Palouse. Most evacuated their homes during the worst part of the fire.
No injuries were reported, and damage to neighbors' homes was kept to several houses with cracked paint or melted siding, Sickles said.
On the west side of the seed company, a couple hundred feet away, the La Quinta Inn was a safe distance from the flames, but guest services manager Keshia Arland wasn't sure of that when she arrived to work at 11:30 p.m.
"When you came into the parking lot you could see the flames over the building," Arland said.
It was the smoke that would cause the most problems for dozens of guests, many of whom were in town this weekend for Wheelin' Walla Walla or the 2011 Northwest Adventist Leadership Convention.
Arland said a few guests ended up checking out early because of the smoke that inundated the east side of the building, but most just moved to rooms on the opposite side.
Officials were uncertain how long the chickpeas will continued to smolder.
Sickles said he expects the entire mound will have to be torn apart so water can be applied to the areas still burning.
Owner Gary Ferrel said he thought it would be the later part of the week before he could get crews to start tearing apart the smoldering mounds.
"We have contacted the insurance company and are waiting for the adjusters to arrive. And at that point we will most likely get the restoration and clean up going in there. Everything is a mess," Ferrel said.
No cause has yet to be reported, but Sickles said it was "suspicious," though he could not comment on the explosion neighbors claimed to have heard.
Ferrel added that dry lentil processing does not have combustion problems, such as those associated with grain elevators that explode from too much grain dust.
Anyone with information on the cause of the fire is asked to call the Walla Walla Fire Department at 527-4429.