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Cause of Brunswick wood pellet warehouse fire outlined in new report

Flammable "cinnamon-like" dust and a delay in calling the fire department were noted in a report outlining the reason for a massive fire and explosion last month.

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — (Note: The video above was originally published May 3.)

A new report reveals details on what caused a massive fire at a wood pellet warehouse in Brunswick last month.

According to a report from the Georgia Office of the Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner, preliminary findings suggest that the fire appears to have started when the wood pellets began decomposing and spontaneously combusted. Investigators spoke to witnesses, who said the pellets may have been stored too high, causing compression and an increased likelihood of combustion. 

Scroll down to view the full report from OCI.

Firefighters were called to the Logistec wood pellet warehouse off Newcastle Street around 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 2, after reports of an explosion. Crews who tried to go inside the plan to put the fire out were pushed back after a second explosion.

RELATED: Smoldering wood pellets cause a massive explosion, fire at Brunswick warehouse

The 140,000 square foot warehouse that stored compressed wood pellets at the Georgia Ports Authority-Brunswick Terminal utilized a private "fire brigade" for about a day before calling the Brunswick Fire Department for help, according to the OCI report. The report includes a picture demonstrating the close proximity of the warehouse to a nearby residential neighborhood (see below).

The fire grew rapidly and became dangerous to the surrounding homes and warehouses, the report says, ultimately growing out of control and causing a violent explosion. Several neighboring fire departments responded to assist, according to the report.

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Credit: Georgia Office of Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner
The warehouse closely adjoins a residential neighborhood.

Fire crews requested the assistance of Savannah Fire Department, which reportedly responded with a trailer-mounted industrial submersible pump capable of providing several thousand gallons of water per minute, the OCI report says. The Brunswick Fire Department stayed on scene to control the fire for several weeks, according to the report.

On Tuesday, May 4, the OCI Arson Unit was requested to the scene to investigate. That's when investigators determined the wood pellets spontaneously combusted after reportedly being stored too high. Investigators also collected information that the delay in contacting the Brunswick Fire Department may have allowed the fire to worsen, according to the report.

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Credit: Georgia Office of the Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner
Brunswick Fire reportedly stayed on scene and controlled the fire for several weeks.

OCI staff met with Georgia Port officials and Logistecs management on Wednesday, June 2, according to the report. Logistecs explained that they receive, store and load for export wood pellets and peanut hull pellets to ship overseas for fuel and livestock feed.

The Logistecs safety manager told OCI that he is very experienced in dealing with pellets and that he could easily identify when wood pellets are beginning to combust, saying they begin to form a flower pattern and an identifiable smell, according to the report. He said that is when workers begin their own efforts to suppress any potential fire hazard, using their own equipment or a private fire brigade, the report says.

The safety officer stated that their employees working in the wood pellet warehouses are all equipped with carbon monoxide and methane monitors, which help identify potential fires, according to the report.

The report says managers from Logistecs downplayed the hazards of storing the pellets, saying they are generally safe and follow all industry-prescribed standards. But, Brunswick Fire Chief David Mobley pointed out that the fire was the second major fire of wood pellets at the facility, along with several other smaller fires the Brunswick Fire Department has responded to, according to the report.

After a tour of the facility, OCI determined the warehouses did not meet International Fire Code or National Fire Protection Association standards to operate, the report says. During the tour, investigators observed several large piles of fine "cinnamon-like" dust scattered around machinery, according to the report.

Mobley stated that any sparks emitted by a conveyor system could potentially ignite the dust, shown in the photos below from the OCI report.

Logistecs Operations Manager David Proctor told investigators they regularly clean and prevent dust buildup, but the unscheduled tour and inspection took place right after crews had loaded several tons of pellets for export and just prior to routine dust removal, according to the report. But, inspectors noted dust-laden cobwebs and corrugated panels (pictured below) with dust heavily suspended were prevalent throughout the facility, the report says.

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Credit: Georgia Office of Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner
Several large piles of fine “cinnamonlike” dust were seen scattered around the hopper and conveyor system at the Logistecs facility following last month's fire. Brunswick Fire Chief David Mobley stated that any sparks emitted by the conveyor could ignite the dust.

Mobley also determined that the facility did not have adequate water connections to combat the fire or any future fires during the tour of the facility, the report says. He pointed out a 12-headed manifold (pictured below) that provides hose connections, stating during the recent fire, crews had to run hundreds of feet of hoses, which reduced their ability to combat the fire, according to the report. Mobley said several fire hoses were damaged due to the conditions in the warehouse and that a similar manifold should be available and installed on the south end of the warehouse.

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Credit: Georgia Office of Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner
Brunswick Fire Chief David Mobley said Logistecs does not have adequate water connections to combat a fire, saying a similar 12-headed manifold to the one pictured should be installed at the opposite end of the facility.

The OCI report also states that according to the State Fire Marshal's Office, OCI has never received building plans or permit applications for combustible dust storage at the facility. 

Logistecs representatives explained that the pellets were received from a company called Fram, which manufactures them at several facilities throughout Georgia, the report says. The representatives said they believed the pellets destroyed in the fire were from a particular plant that produces pellets more susceptible to combustion, according to the report.

Those pellets are stored in several warehouses through the Brunswick Ports, the report says. Logistecs said they receive and export approximately 1,000,000 tons of wood pellets and 40,000 tons of peanut pellets each year.

The company said during the meeting that there is an abundance of wood pellets that have already been manufactured and are being stored in various locations throughout the state, which could lead to other potential fire hazards, the report says.

RELATED: Brunswick firefighters continue working around the clock at Logistec warehouse after massive fire

Logistecs inquired about its ability to resume pellet exporting operations, which Mobley was adamantly opposed to under current conditions, according to the report. The following minimum safety standards were recommended before temporary operations are allowed to resume:

  1. Logistecs submits a combustible dust scheduled control plan. They need to assign a manager to document their efforts to prevent and control combustible dust.  This plan should meet industry standards and be approved by this office and the Georgia Ports Authority.
  2.  Logistics installs a minimum of a 2-hour fire rated barriers dividing the stored pellets into contained areas not to exceed 20,000 sq ft. This will help to control the spread of potential fire into entire warehouses. Plans and installation to be approved by this office. 
  3. Improve water supply to south end of building. This can be accomplished via the permanent installation of an approved manifold or providing Brunswick Fire Dept. with a trailer-mounted industrial submersible fire pump capable of providing the necessary GPM’s needed according to fire officials. 
  4. Any fires or smoldering pellet condition, whether exposed or not, are immediately reported to the Brunswick Fire Department, who will have primary jurisdiction for determining the response and any efforts for combating fires. 
  5. OCI will deputize a designated Brunswick certified firefighter as a State Fire Marshal to conduct random inspections to ensure compliance. 
  6. Within six months of resuming operations, Logistecs shall submit plans and application to bring any pellet storage warehouses housing combustible dust into industry state and national compliance standards. Alternatively, Logistecs can submit application and plans to this office for the construction of approved permanent storage facilities.

RELATED: Warehouse full of wood pellets in Brunswick catches fire for 2nd time since 2015

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