ATF investigates chickpea fire at Walla Walla firm

Evidence at the scene and witness accounts suggest an explosive may have been involved .

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WALLA WALLA -- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating Friday night's fire at a chickpea processing plant.

ATF investigator Jessie Summers said he expects the crew of at least three investigators will probe the fire for the next three days.

Before the fire, an explosion was heard by numerous neighbors. Jeremy Burns, who lives right next to the entrance of Blue Mountain Seed Inc., 203 E. Oak St., said he heard an explosion just before going to bed.

"I just heard a boom and I wasn't certain where it came from," Burns said.

Interim Fire Chief Bob Yancey said preliminary findings by department investigators and witness accounts point to some type of explosive device, which is why the ATF was asked to assist.

"We found some evidence that there was some kind of explosive device," Yancey said Sunday afternoon as he supervised the continuing mop-up of a stubborn, smoldering fire.

The fire was called in around 11 p.m. on Friday and took about two hours to get under control.

All weekend, residents nearby and at times across town were choked with smoke from the smoldering sections, especially when an inversion Saturday morning trapped the smoke as it fanned out in a northwest direction all the way to the Washington State Penitentiary, 1.2 miles away.

"There is such a massive amount of product in there that it is taking us a while to get it out," Yancey said.

Blue Mountain Seed processes 8,000 tons of dry peas and chickpeas (garbanzos) each year, said owner Gary Ferrel.

Currently, the chickpea season is around the middle of the harvest, and the company had been storing dry chickpeas in stacks of wood and metal bins.

Each bin weighs about 3,000 pounds, and most were stored in a warehouse approximately 120 feet by 60 feet, Ferrel said.

That warehouse and another slightly smaller adjacent warehouse, where a loose mound of chickpeas was stored, were the center of the fire that sent flames more than 50 feet in the air Friday night, visible over the roof of the neighboring La Quinta Inn.

On Saturday, managers at the inn said they had numerous complaints over smoke and had to move guests from rooms on the backside of the building to the front.

The smoke also caused problems for neighbors, including Ines Velazquez, who lives just across the street on North Palouse Street.

"I have problems with breathing, and last night I could not use my respirator because it smelled of smoke," Velazquez said, also noting that everything smells like smoke -- the cars, the house, the entire neighborhood.

As for the several neighbors who live on the west side of the street and border Blue Mountain Seed, most found temporary housing elsewhere, and at least one received assistance from the local chapter of the American Red Cross to find other housing, Yancey said.

On Saturday and Sunday, a city front loader was used to move the piles of smoldering chickpeas, and firefighters were busy operating forklifts to take down what had become dangerous stacks of crumbling and smoking bins of chickpeas.

"Last night (Saturday night) when it got dark, it was too unsafe ... it is just a smoky awful mess," Yancey said, adding he was hopeful all the smoldering sections would be broken apart and doused some time today.

About the only upside was that Burns' garage sale had plenty of customers all day, as people drove by to see the aftermath of the burn. But he, too, is tired of the smoke.

"It was pretty bad. The smoke would give you a sore throat. But we didn't get it that bad. Mainly when the wind would swirl," Burns said.

The fire also might have threatened the livelihood of local chickpea farmers, who would have been forced to find other out-of-county buyers, thus increasing shipping costs.

Ferrel said Northwest Grain Growers is assisting with storing the chickpeas until he can get his facility operating again.

"It has been a godsend. It is tremendous how they are helping us," Ferrel said.

Ferrel has owned and operated the facility for the last 15 years.

He said prior to that, the facility was operated under another name since the 1950s.

The company employes five workers, whom Ferrel said will continue to be employed full-time.

He added he has insurance to cover both the fire and loss of business.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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