Photos courtesy of Madison (Wl) Fire Department.


On May 3, 1991, fire and structural collapse occurred at the Central Storage and Warehouse Company (CSW) in Madison, Wisconsin. It was to become the largest dollar-loss fire in the city’s history, exceeding $80 million in damages and costs to the city. Twenty-one million gallons of water were poured onto the fire in a 48hour period. The building contents created problems never before encountered by Madison fire personnel, particularly the 13 million pounds of butter stored on the premises that turned the fireground into a greasy quagmire, posing a serious hazard to firefighters and environment. For all the problems during the difficult firefight. six firefighters sustained only minor injuries and there were no civilian injuries.


The CSW cold storage complex consisted of five buildings—a total area of some 224,000 square feet of space— used for freezing and cooling a variety of perishable items. They included at the time of the fire 13 million pounds of butter; 4.7 million pounds of meat and poultry; 4.7 million pounds of cranberries; 4 million pounds of baked goods and meat-andcheese gift packs; nearly 700,000 pounds of vegetables; and nearly one million pounds of other food products. Most of the commodities were boxed, palletized, and bound with shrink wrap but were unencapsulated.

All buildings were of unprotected metal-frame construction (Type 6 as per the State of Wisconsin Department of Industry, Labor, and Human Relations (ILHRJ building code; Type II, 000 as per the NFPA Standard 220). Storage arrangements were a combination of doubleand multiple-row racks and additional storage as high as 50 feet. The storage racks in Buildings 1 and 3 were the support system for the roof assembly and wall panels. Building 2 was constructed of bar joists supported by steel columns. Exterior walls were foam insulation between metal sheathing. The roof assemblies consisted of metal deck, insulation, a weather-tight barrier, and a gravel ballast.

Automatic fire sprinkler systems were installed in four of the five CSW buildings: Building 1 had a wet system in the dock/mezzanine area and a dry system in its freezer area; Building 2 had no sprinkler protection; Building 3 had a dry’ system; Building 4 mirrored that of Building 1; and Building 5 had a wet system in the enclosed dock area. The mechanical refrigeration equipment corridor had a wet system.

The systems were supplied by an eight-inch private fire main loop around the structures fed by an eightinch-diameter connection to the city main and were monitored by a central station supervisory service. The freezer area of Building 1 — the area of fire origin —contained upright, 286-degree heads at ceiling level only; they provided an application density of 0.15 gpm per square foot over a 2,600-square-foot demand area. Neither in-rack nor column sprinkler protection was provided for any building. There were no smoke or heat de tectors in the buildings.

As per Wisconsin’s ILHR building code, Type 6 occupancies are limited to SO feet high. Storage occupancies in excess of 20,000 square feet used for high-piled storage of moderate hazard contents are required to be sprinklered as per 231 and 231C. Freezer warehouses, however, are excluded from this requirement. Since the building owners desired freezer structures exceeding SO feet in height, the state permitted 55-foothigh structures with ceiling-only sprinkler systems, the design of which was based on NFPA 13 The design was inadequate for the storage hazard.

A single 7,750-pound-capacity ammonia tank supplied the ammonia compressors in the mechanical refrigeration equipment corridor and in the basement of Building S. This tank was situated approximately six feet from Building S and 40 feet from Building 1.

The CSW site is accessible to vehicles from a paved road on the north side and an access drive to the east. On-site paved service roads are provided along the east side of the buildings and across the north and west side of Building 3. A railroad spur line runs the full length of the setback space between Buildings 2/3 and 4/5.

Building 1 was the building of fire origin and was totally destroyed in the fire. It was a one-story structure with a mezzanine above the dock area and encompassed a total area of 61,152 square feet, with a freezer area of 42,770 square feet. The dock/mezzanine section was separated from the freezer section by a two-hour-rated fire wall. A certificate of occupancy for the building was issued in October 1988 by the City of Madison Inspection Unit, which inspects and enforces codes for all occupancies in the city as per the state code. Building 2, also destroyed in the fire, was a freezer measuring 36.000 square feet.


On Friday, May 3, a CSW forklift operator in Building 1 heard behind him a sound “similar to a torch being lit, only much louder” and turned to see blue flames at the floor level around the cab area of an out-ofservice battery-powered forklift that had experienced mechanical problems earlier in the day. He left the area to alert the operations manager. Both men returned to the area with fire extinguishers, and another employee called the Dane County Communications Center (9-1 -1) to report the fire. Although the contents of both extinguishers were expelled, the fire quickly grew to a level well beyond that which was manageable by CSW employees. Two minutes after the call to 9-1-1, the central monitoring agency reported fire alarm signals from the facility.

From the nearest fire station just one block away, the first-due engine company officer reported heavy black smoke and fire showing. Division Chief Fred Kinney requested a second alarm assignment while en route. First units initiated an interior attack with 2’/2-inch handlines, supplemented the sprinkler system with two 2‘/2-inch lines each at 150 psi, made certain that the building had been evacuated, and evaluated the scene for any civilian medical assistance that might be necessary’.

At 1542 hours, Kinney established an incident command post at the northeast corner of the facility. Rear sector command (the south side) was assumed by Assistant Chief Art Albright. A safety officer and an interior sector commander were designated.

CSW’ management was contacted to verify” the building construction/design and contents, and communications were established between the property engineer and command post staff. A fire inspector and a fire protection engineer provided the incident commander, safety officer, and, later, fire investigators with information relative to building design and construction as well as the automatic sprinkler system.

Material safety data sheets were supplied by CSW personnel. The data indicated a variety of hazardous chemicals stored within the buildings; through the first several hours of operations, the potential for a haz-mat incident was considerable. Under the direction of Fire Inspector Rich Riphon, the ammonia gas supply was shut down and isolated from the fireground; however, residual ammonia in the system continued to feed the fire during the early stages of the firefight. One by one, chemical containers located throughout Buildings 1 and 2 were removed to the south end of Building 5. On-site hazardous chemicals included sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, potassium hydroxide, and various other chemicals.



The interior sector officer reported that Building l sprinklers were operating and the visible fire was low to the floor near the location later identified to be the point of origin (just a short distance from the firewall that separates dock and freezer areas). The smoke was thick and black and low to the ground. Soon the attack crew officer reported that they had knocked down the fire.

However, personnel conducting size-up at the roof level and those at the front of the building reported significant and intensify ing extension to those areas. (It has been theorized that rapid fire extension occurred via the building foam insulation; however, the investigation of the fire was not able to confirm this.)

Based on these reports, Albright, understanding the construction type and the potential for early collapse, ordered interior crews to back out of the freezer area and maintain positions on the dock side of the firew all. From this position crews could apply water from doorways between the two building sections, but this had limited effect on the fire, which was now well out of reach of interior streams. Roof size-up crews were ordered off the roof and a ladder pipe was established at the southeast corner of the fire building to extinguish the roof fire. Handlines and a deluge set w ere positioned to stop fire spread into the exposed structure (Building

2) at the #4/west side.

At 1622 hours, just 50 minutes after the communications center received its first report of fire, an interior officer at the dock section reported, “The racks are coming dow n,” and the east wall of the building collapsed outward onto the area where an engine company had laid a supply line to the ladder pipe. Fire personnel were accounted for within seconds after the collapse. Civilian bystanders had been cleared from the area only moments before, and none were injured. All firefighters were ordered out of the collapse danger zone. Additional units were special-called as needed.

Within minutes, the fire had spread rapidly through the freezer area, and the entire freezer collapsed. Only the dock section of the building remained intact, but its structural stability was questionable, and firefighters were ordered to stay clear of the dock area.


Assistant Chief Phillip Vorlander, Emergency Operations ( enter (HOC) commander, based on the magnitude of the fire, potential exposure to hazardous materials, and the large potential for an environmental disaster, activated the HOC system and called for evacuation of civilians within a onehalf-mile radius of the fire scene. This was accomplished by the Madison police force. The American Red Cross organized and ran an evacuation center.

Responsibilities of HOC personnel included the recall of firefighters to staff reserve apparatus, increase of foreground staffing levels, and coordination of mutual-aid support to assist in citywide coverage. Fire departments from the town of Madison and cities of Monona, Fitchburg, and Shorewood were requested to respond truck companies on first-alarm assignments to reported structure fires within Madison. Vorlander ordered a shutdown of the railroad line adjacent to the CSW property. This order was reconfirmed with the communications center several times during the incident.

The department’s public information officer was positioned on the scene to deal with media representatives of national and local news agencies. He was assisted by two community education officers. Reports were issued to keep evacuees—and all city residents—informed of events.

In anticipation of considerable amounts of contaminated water and liquefied dairy product runoff, and with many bodies of water in the vicinity, command requested immediate assistance from the public works department, the city engineering department, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Retention basins were constructed adjacent to the fire scene and a nearby creek was dammed. The incident commander and city engineering established ongoing communications to determine the impact of the water being delivered on the fire to the retention basins, thus preventing overflow of the basins.

Firefighters were severely impaired by the melted butter, cheese, and lard; they had been turned into rivers of hot flowing liquid. It flowed from every orifice and crevice of the collapsed structure. Soon, however, the cold w ater applied to the fire and the cool weather solidified the product, and firefighters waded through the greasy solids, which in some locations were waist-deep. The grease saturated turnout gear and gloves, making every action—handling equipment, holding handlines, climbing ladders and stairs, even walking—difficult and dangerous.

Personnel from the fire department’s maintenance division provided many critical support services during the incident: They brought additional front-line vehicles to the scene; transported additional fuel to the scene and refueled rigs; performed on-scene maintenance as necessary; relayed recharged portable radio batteries; and delivered additional equipment, turnout gear, and SCBAs.


Foreground operations, after the collapse, switched to defensive/offensive: At the rear sector, three engine companies delivered water through 2’/2-inch handlines and a deck gun; two deck guns and a ladder pipe were set up at the front sector; an additional ladder pipe was spotted to protect the attached exposure immediately to the west from the exterior; and 2½inch handlines were stretched into Building 2 to attack the fire and limit spread from that position. A single 2‘/2-inch handline was positioned to protect exposures across the east access road. The fire was effectively

Early collapse of Building I's east wall soon was followed by total failure of the structure. Heavy fire in buildings of unprotected steel construction, typical of many warehouses, requires operational preparedness for collapse.A river of melted butter oozes from the pile of rubble that was once Buillding 1 (pictured here from the east). Product runoff posed a significant threat to firefighters, apparatus, and equipment. Knowledge of stored products in advance of fire will assist incident commanders and officers in anticipating potential staging/apparatus movement problems.


The burning contents of Building 1 freezer were creating a very intense fire. Extension was exacerbated by strong winds out of the east, creating superheated convection currents that whipped across Buildings 2 and 3 and pushed the fire toward inaccessible areas. Companies could not contain it from spreading to Building 2. At 1815 hours firefighters reported that it, too, was involved.

Chief Albright conducted a thorough size-up of the complex and reported to Incident Commander Kinney to discuss alternative strategies. Chief of Department Earle Roberts arrived at approximately this time and monitored operations. Command decided to pull back the west and south fire containment perimeters to better protect Buildings 3 and 4 across the railroad alley and the critical mechanical equipment corridor, which was at the center of the complex, attached to Buildings l, 2, and 5.

By 1910 hours, the new defensive strategy was fully implemented and the mechanical corridor sprinkler system supplemented through the fire department connection. The complement of aerial master streams, deck guns (both staffed and unstaffed), and 2‘/2*inch handlines (three of which were applied from the Building 3 roof) were pounding the fire and cooling exposures with approximately a 4,500-gpm fireflow.

At no time during the incident was water supply a problem. The CSW complex contained on-site private hydrants on the north, east, and south sides; west side companies pulled water from hydrants on another property. Adequate pressures were maintained through the firelight, even with the broken sprinkler system piping in Building 1.


The strategy was sound but the fire stronger. The fire involvement and possible structural collapse of Building 2 forced crews out of the railroad alley and oft’ the roof of Building 3 An aerial master stream was placed in service at that location. Furthermore, the fire was rapidly working its waysouth toward the mechanical corridor. Rear and #4 sector crews began an aggressive but careful interior and exterior attack in efforts to save the corridor.

Chief Albright, monitoring progress at the corridor position, realized that losing the corridor position would pose a threat to the south building and the hazardous chemicals stored there. He ordered all hazardous chemical containers out of the building. CSW personnel loaded the materials into trucks and removed them from the site.

Most of Building 2 collapsed inward upon itself.

The firefight continued well into the night. Firefighters were continually relieved from their duties to rest and rehabilitate. Rehabilitation areas were established at both the front and rear sectors. Emergency medical crews monitored personnel, and the Salvation Army responded with a mobile canteen vehicle to assist with the rehab effort.

At approximately 0130 hours, rear and #4 sector crews reported that the mechanical corridor was involved and that they were pulling out but leaving unstaffed lines flowing. Soon after, the corridor sprinklers activated. At 0227, crews were able to advance handlines back into the corridor. The fire was stopped at the corridor by the combination of an aggressive attack and the flowing sprinkler heads. Exposure protection between the railroad alley was also successful.

At 0406, Albright reported that the fire was contained. Over the next hour, master streams were redirected into the burning mass of rubble that was once Buildings 1 and 2. Exposure protection was no longer required.

At 0630, Chief Kinney relinquished command to Division Chief Ronald Schmelzer. Throughout the morning, command concentrated on shift change assignments and company reassignments. Mutual-aid companies from surrounding communities were requested to assist in fireground operations. which now focused primarily on applying water to the burning rubble with master streams and controlling flareups with handlines.

It took approximately 43 hours to bring the fire under control. Here, unstaffed appliances pour water onto the west portion of a demolished Building 2 on Saturday morning, May 4.Some of the nightmarish equipment cleanup was done on-site. Here, butter-saturated hoselines are steam-cleaned. Note piles of resolidified butter in the background.


The fire was declared under control at 1000 hours on Sunday, May 5. It was necessary, however, to keep crews and equipment on the scene for eight days more. At 1800 hours on May 5, the suppression activities were reduced to ‘fire watch” status to extinguish flareups during the rubbleremoval process.

The Fire Investigation Unit supervisor, Captain Edgar “Jerry” Anderson, had arrived early in the incident. Assisted by members of the Fire/Police Arson Squad, he conducted preliminary interviews with the CSW employees who were in the area of the initial fire. Photos and video were taken to document the fire. Based on information from the preliminary interviews, the investigators were concerned about gaining access to the suspected area of origin during the debris-removal process. Debris removal was coordinated to maintain the integrity of the area of origin, to which investigators gained access on May 7. The cause of the fire was determined to be accidental and the origin to be in and around the batterypowered forklift. The forklift was removed and secured for evaluation.

On May 13, the scene was released to the property owners.

On September 13, 1991, the new Building 1 freezer was ready for use. It is of unprotected steel construction, with steel bar joists supported by steel columns (Type 6 as per the state ILHR building code, like its predecessor). It accommodates high-pile commodity storage—not rack. Installed is a double-interlocked preaction sprinkler system with a density of .38 gpm per square foot over a 2,600-squarefoot demand area. Currently it contains 16 million pounds of cranberries but in the future will once again contain large quantities of butter.


  • State and local codes provide minimum standards for the protection of life and property. This fact must be reinforced with property owners and design professionals when the plans and budgets for projects are being developed. Property owners should be persuaded to protect the building and its contents with a sprinkler system designed for the hazard. The automatic sprinkler systems installed at the Central Storage Warehouse facility were not matched to the hazard and were unable to control the fire in its incipient stage. In-rack and rack-column protection were not provided and sprinkler head densities were far below required for an occupancy of this classification.

Building codes that do not address the fire potential of freezer/cooler storage facilities must be amended. Fire departments must be actively involved in seeking code revisions that affect fire protection and life safety in their jurisdictions. Since prior to the CSW incident, the Madison Fire Department Fire Prevention Bureau has been pursuing revisions to the state code that will require automatic sprinkler protection in most commercial and multifamily structures, tighten restrictions on sprinkler installations, require a safety factor for sprinkler systems between the required demand and the available water, and so forth.

  • The CSW incident is one more example of how quickly unprotected metal structures can fail in a fire. Fire spread through foam insulation may have been a significant factor at this fire; nevertheless, the amount, type, and packaging of stored combustibles alone were more than sufficient to produce an intense fire capable of spreading very rapidly. High-rack storage wherein rack columns form the vertical supports for the structure are particularly susceptible to wall collapse and subsequent total failure.

Within the context of foreground safety, sprinklered facilities that do not conform to recognized sprinkler standards must be treated by operations personnel as unsprinklered, and operations managers must plan the early collapse potential of such occupancies into SOPs. Commanders at the CSW fire were quick to recognize the collapse potential of the structure and still were only minutes away from injury to both civilians and firefighters. Apparatus placement is an essential consideration when planning for collapse.

  • Manual alarm systems that could have given occupants advanced warning of the fire through audiovisual alarm devices were not present in the CSW facility. Such systems and other early warning devices are basic lifesafety components for every occupied structure and must be held by code-making bodies as such: basic and necessary.
  • As with any target hazard, preincident planning is essential. Knowledge of building construction, fire protection characteristics, and commodities/combustibles and hazardous materials stored within increases safety and chances for success immeasurably. (See “Avoiding Warehouse Disasters” and “The Commodity Letter” by Glenn P. Corbett, Fire Engineering, November 1991, pp. 38 and 42.) Cooperation with industrial management is necessary. Fire department engineers or individuals with comparable duties should maintain records of building and sprinkler system plans for quick retrieval should they be required on the fireground. Preplans should also address the potential impact of burning contents on the environment.
  • A safety officer was designated immediately and utilized continuously during the incident. The value of establishing this position on the fireground was manifested in the limited number of (minor) injuries at the CSW fire. Departments can’t stress often enough the importance of a safety officer at all multiple-alarm fires and complex nonfire incidents.

High-piled stock warehouses involved in fire pose a severe threat to the safety of interior crews: Firefighters may lose their orientation in the maze-like surroundings, a heavy smoke condition is exacerbated by sprinklers driving smoke to the floor, and the potential for stock collapse is very real.

  • Two operational lessons reinforced by the Madison incident are calling for additional companies and mutual aid early and leading off w ith
  • labor-intensive 2½-inch handlines for large or potentially large fires.
  • Readiness and support by the Madison Fire Department’s maintenance division were vital to ongoing operations, reinforcing the lesson that the performance and value of the maintenance division is not confined to the shops.
  • Madison’s maintenance division was assigned the monumental task of cleaning, evaluating, and repairing firefighter turnouts, breathing apparatus, fireground appliances, apparatus,
  • hoselines, and virtually every’ piece of equipment used on the fireground. Serious questions were raised concerning the proper cleaning method for turnout gear and whether the inherent safety of the gear would be decreased. Turnouts were sent to an independent contractor. Advice was requested from experts, and flame tests were performed to determine if the prescribed cleaning methods were satisfactory. Test results determined that the gear itself was safe but that significant shrinking had oc-
  • turret!, thereby rendering the gear illfitting and unsafe.
  • Ilie issue of cost recovery on large fires—for gear, overtime costs for firefighters and personnel from other city agencies, additional equipment from other agencies, etc — should be a management concern of every department. Alternatives for recuperating emergency expenses should be explored.
  • Firefighters cannot function safely and effectively without adequate — and enforced—rest and rehab measures.
  • The value of good public relations often shows up on the fireground, particularly at large-scale incidents; and fire departments benefit from positive relationships with private businesses and citizens in the area. At the Madison fire, area food service businesses provided food and refreshments throughout the incident. Private contractors, in cooperation with

the City Streets Department, poured gravel over the railroad tracks to allow fire apparatus access to the rear of the building, bridged hoselines to improve vehicle movement around the scene, constructed a walkway across a ditch filled with melted butter for firefighters, assisted with relocating apparatus through the slippery runoff, and removed debris to allow investigators to access the point of origin.

Remember, however, that even the most well-intentioned private citizens and members of private businesses must be controlled and their efforts coordinated. Their activities must in no way hamper fire department operations or place the individual in a position of risk. Each department, with advice from legal counsel and direction from city management, must establish its own policy with regard to such assistance and ensuant legal ramifications.

  • The fire department, in this era of litigation, must prepare for the legal hurdles that undoubtedly will con-
  • front it. Despite a very hard-fought battle and a safe, effective operation in the face of difficult odds, insurance carriers have filed claims against the city of Madison —totalling well in the millions—for fire department operations that day.
  • Call for or designate a public information officer early on in a largescale or potentially large-scale incident to control and inform members of the media. The PIO can help to pass information to the building owners and answer questions they might have—another important form of public relations.
  • This report was compiled from incident summaries by and interviews with Assistant Chief Art Albright, Assistant Chief Ray Disch, Assistant Chief Phil Vorlander, Division Chief Fred Kinney, and Division Chief Ron Schmelzer of the Madison (WI) Fire Department. Other preand post-incident information was obtained from a report prepared by the Madison Fire Investigation Unit.

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