MADISON, Wis. -- A massive fire that engulfed a dairy warehouse complex and sent a burning river of melted butter into the streets was contained by firemen Saturday and 3,000 evacuated area residents were allowed to return home.
The four-alarm blaze broke out around 3:30 p.m. Friday at the Central Storage Warehouse complex, which stores luncheon meat, cheese and tons of government surplus butter.
Madison East Department Fire Chief Ron Schmelzer called it 'the worst fire in the history of the city.' Four minor injuries were reported, a nearby highway was closed, and damage was estimated at $50 million to $100 million.
'What we've got is a massive grease fire,' he said. 'I couldn't even begin to estimate how many millions of gallons of water were dumped on this thing.'
The cause of the fire had not been confirmed Saturday.
The evacuations, including 200 residents of the Colonial Manor nursing home, were necessary because the fire spread from the complex's main building to two adjacent structures containing potentially dangerous chemicals.
Schmelzer said as many as 115 firefighters and volunteers fought the fire. They managed to contain it Saturday, but the chief said the blaze was far from extinguished and could smolder until Wednesday.
Kent Kruger, an emergency worker, said hazardous materials teams removed what was believed to be sulfuric acid from one building because of the fear it would mix with some stored ammonia and create a toxic cloud. The approximately 3,000 evacuees, who had been taken to a nearby high school for shelter, were then told they could return to their homes.
Kruger said the butter turned out to be more of a problem.
'Six stories of butter melted and started flowing into the streets and sewers,' he said. 'We had to take an end loader and put sand on the burning butter.'
City engineers and employees constructed dams to stop the flow of butter from reaching creeks and lakes, but Schmelzer said the butter could solidify in the sewer system and create problems.
Central Storage Warehouse is made up of five buildings storing more than 50 million pounds of food items -- including cheese, Oscar Mayer meats, and Swiss Colony products. The buildings that burned contained 10 to 15 million pounds of government surplus butter, CSW owner Ken Williams said.
Kruger said the damage to the buildings and contents was estimated at between $50 million and $100 million. CSW Vice President Tom Fitzgerald said the company's insurance would cover the costs.
Motorist Vicki Meseberg saw the fire from her car.
'My God, the flames were so high, the smoke was very, very black,' she said. 'I was on the highway and could feel the heat from my car.
'The heat was very intense. The flames were so red, the smoke was thick black. It was scary. The flames were coming from all directions. The building caved in and made a very horrible sound,' she said.
There were 15 to 20 workers inside the warehouse when the fire began, but only four injuries were reported. One employee of the company was treated for minor burns and one firefighter was treated for exhaustion. Two other firefighters suffered minor injuries.
Schmelzer said one of the buildings collapsed as three crews of firefighters were retreating from the structure about 11 p.m. Friday. Nobody was hurt.
U.S. Highway 51, which runs next to the warehouse, was closed from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and then for a short time after 12:30 a.m. when it was feared refrigeration tanks in the complex would explode.
A crowd that reached an estimated 1,000 people gathered on an overpass of the highway peaking late Friday afternoon and cheered as pieces of the buildings crumbled.
Kruger said the fire may have started when a forklift battery exploded. It began near an idle forklift in a refrigerated section of the newest building, built in 1988, according to Fitzgerald.
Williams said the company will try to re-establish operations. The company was founded by his father in 1949.