One intense morning

On Tuesday, May 26 I woke up as usual. I didn’t have any early morning assignments so I was puttering around the house before going into work. I checked social media for anything interesting when I saw a photo of large column of smoke rising from a large fire. It didn’t mention where, but I thought I recognized it as the Mizkan America tomato processing plant in east Stockton. I threw on some clothes and headed out.

(5/26/20) A plume of smoke could be seen miles away from a plastic pallet fire at the former Del Monte food processing plant on D Street near Poplar Street in east Stockton on Tuesday, May 26. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

Driving down I-5, I could see a gigantic plume of black smoke rising into the sky. It columned straight up for several hundred feet then smeared westward for what looked like miles.
Dark black smoke usually means a structure fire, which burns hotter than a vegetation fire, which produces white or brown smoke. Many times I’ve headed out to a structure fire and I can tell when the firefighters get the upper hand on it because the smoke turns from black to white as the fire’s temperature decreases and steam is added to the mix. For my entire drive to the Mizkan fire, the smoke plume was black. In fact, it seemed to get darker the closer I got.

(5/26/20) A plastic pallet fire rages at the former Del Monte food processing plant on D Street near Poplar Street in east Stockton on Tuesday, May 26. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

I arrived around 9:00 a.m. and the fire was raging intensely. Stacked plastic bins were burning uncontrollably. Stockton firefighters, armed with water cannons, ladder trucks and a few crews with hand-held hoses, were pouring water from a distance. This usually means that they were trying to contain the fire and keep it from spreading rather than actively going in to put it out. Sort of like an aerial bombardment rather than sending in ground troops.

(5/26/20) A plastic pallet fire rages at the former Del Monte food processing plant on D Street near Poplar Street in east Stockton on Tuesday, May 26. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

I and other news media kept our distance outside the plants fence along D Street. We were about 100 yards away from the closest flames. We could feel the intensity of the heat, though it was still bearable. I found out later that plastic burns about 3 times hotter than wood.

(5/26/20) A plastic pallet fire rages at the former Del Monte food processing plant on D Street near Poplar Street in east Stockton on Tuesday, May 26. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

The smoke, which rose up high so no one had to immediately breathe in the noxious fumes, was a blessing in disguise. The fire occurred on one of the hottest days of the year, forecasted to be more than 100 degrees. The smoke was so thick that it blotted the sun kept things a bit cooler than they could have been.

(5/26/20) A plastic pallet fire is reflected in a pool of runoff water as it rages at the former Del Monte food processing plant on D Street near Poplar Street in east Stockton on Tuesday, May 26. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

Runoff from the thousands upon thousands of gallons of water pooled up in a depression in the yard. The water was relatively still and its reflections made it look like both ground and water were burning.

(5/26/20) A fire tornado is spawned during a plastic pallet fire at the former Del Monte food processing plant on D Street near Poplar Street in east Stockton on Tuesday, May 26. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]
(5/26/20) A forklift is engulfed in a fire tornado at a plastic pallet fire at the former Del Monte food processing plant on D Street near Poplar Street in east Stockton on Tuesday, May 26. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

An abandoned forklift sat in the water at the far side of the pond about 10 yards from the flames. The fire intensified and small fire tornadoes were spawned by the larger conflagration. Whirling columns of flames corkscrewed their way skyward. At one point one of them became almost cyclonic, swirling over the forklift and engulfing it in flames to where it couldn’t be seen anymore. A PG&E line crew, on hand to deal with any power lines that melted or caught fire, stood agape. One of them said in awe “that’s crazy!”

(5/26/20) Wayne Burke, who lives across the street from the plastic pallet fire at the former Del Monte food processing plant on D Street near Poplar Street in east Stockton, hoses down a tree hit his yard to keep it from catching fire from the heat. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

I walked down about a block to where one of the last stacks of bins standing started to catch fore. A Stockton Police community service officer had blocked off one of the streets that dead-ended at D Street. It soon became too hot and he had to move back his vehicle about a half-block.

Nearby Wayne Burke, who’s house was across the street from the fire, was using a garden hose to spray down his house and plants in his yard to keep them from catching fire. The drops of water that landed on the street instantly turned to puffs of steam. Burke, who was shirtless, was feeling the heat, too. “Now I know what a pig at a luau feels like,” he said.

(5/26/20) A Stockton firefighter runs with a hose over his shoulder towards a fire at the Mizkan America tomato processing plant on D Street near Poplar Street in east Stockton on Tuesday, May 26. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE STOCKTON RECORD]

The heat was so intense that I could no longer go back the way I came. I walked down the perpendicular street to the next block then back to my starting point. When I got back, a fire engine was pulling back to redeploy further back from the heat. A firefighter then came running out from the fenced area the pulled a hose from another engine and ran back towards some trucks within the fence. He wasn’t going to fight there fire with it, but rather to cool down those engines from the heat.

The fire started at about 5:00 a.m. and rage until it was brought under control about midday. Kudos to the Stockton Fire Department and its firefighters. They contained the fire to the bins. No structures were damaged and the only injury was a firefighter who was overcome by the heat and treated.

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