(Revised) — One of the massive stacks of square bales that have lined the south side of the Trans-Canada Highway at Elie, Man. for years is burning and smouldering in what RCMP call a suspicious fire.
The long rows of large bales are almost all that’s left of several companies’ ambitious plans to use local farmers’ wheat straw, combined with resin, to make pressboard at Elie for use in kitchen cabinetry and furniture.
RCMP at Headingley, Man. reported Friday morning they had been called Thursday before 9:30 p.m. to a fire near the former Dow BioProducts plant at Elie, about 35 km west of Winnipeg.
RCMP Sgt. Denis Jolicoeur said in a release Friday morning that the Mounties were met at the scene by firefighters from the local R.M. of Cartier and staff from the provincial fire commissioner’s office.
“The local volunteer fire department is in the process of extinguishing the fire and are using all means at their disposal at this time,” Jolicoeur wrote Friday. “The fire continues to burn and there is no threat to any businesses and/or residences in the area.”
The Winnipeg Free Press reported Friday on its website that Cartier firefighters were using backhoes and front-end loaders to break up the burning bales, and a tractor-drawn snowblower to dump snow on the fire. The newspaper quoted Jolicoeur as saying the blaze is expected to burn for several days in the densely-packed straw.
Jolicoeur said in his release that the fire started about five rows back from the highway and spread quickly due to strong north winds.
RCMP and the fire commissioner’s office have the fire under investigation as “suspicious at this time,” he said.
Dow Chemical, in a separate press release Friday afternoon thanking firefighters, the R.M. public works department and local contractors for their work to extinguish the fire in “cold and blustery” conditions, said it’s estimated that about 200 of the bales were involved in the fire.
Dow, which also thanked RCMP for their work monitoring the area, noted there were no injuries as a result of the fire, which the company said is expected to burn for the rest of Friday, “with diminishing smoke and smouldering.” Dow personnel and building security staff have remained on site to assist during the firefighting work, the company added.
The bale stacks at the site date back to 1998, when Isobord Manufacturing opened its strawboard plant at Elie, buying, baling, hauling and stacking wheat straw it bought from local farmers. The company, which used Dow Chemical’s resin to make its products, went into receivership in 2001, after which Dow took over the plant and operated it until 2005.
Dow Chemical Canada decided early in 2008 to sell the plant’s presses and equipment to foreign buyers, but kept personnel at the plant, such as the watchman who the Free Press said sounded the alarm on Thursday night’s fire.
The long stacks of large square bales, varying in condition but treated regularly for pests, have sat on company-owned and other privately-held land at Elie and remained intact through the F5 tornado that blew through the community in June 2007.
Other companies interested in the factory were reportedly unable to reach a deal with Dow, which said it would sell the property and building separately. Dow said in January 2008 it was planning to also “deal with the straw inventory in an environmentally friendly manner.”
“It’s either burn it or work it in,” Bill Ridgeway, president of the Straw Producers Co-operative that supplied Isobord, told the Manitoba Co-operator at that time when discussing Dow’s options for dealing with the straw.
At least one private landowner who rented out his nearby field for the facility’s bales had previously told the Co-operator he hoped to compost the abandoned straw into the soil.