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Organic Valley fire cleanup and rebuilding begins

By Pauleen Le, ple@wkbt.com
Published On: May 15 2013 07:35:15 PM CDT
Updated On: May 15 2013 07:40:17 PM CDT
LA FARGE, Wis. – -

Employees at the nation's largest organic food cooperative are still trying to come to grips with a devastating fire that destroyed half of its headquarters.

It took crews roughly 18 hours to finally put out the fire at Organic Valley's headquarters in La Farge.

slideshows_icon[1] SLIDESHOW: Pictures From Organic Valley Fire

The roof on the building's west end has collapsed. Some of the siding is missing, and the metal frame is warped.

The east end is still intact.

Firefighters arrived on the scene shortly after 4:30 Tuesday.

By then, all 400 employees had already been evacuated and accounted for.

Eleven fire departments from the surrounding area responded to the call.

They worked around the clock, but solar panels on the roof, thick windows and strong winds made the job difficult.

“ Well, as you can see, first of all, the building has collapsed, and once it collapses it's very difficult to get all the hot spots put out, but it took us several hours simply to get the advancement of the fire stopped,” said Chief Phillip Stittleberg of the La Farge Fire Department.

The co-op is now faced with the daunting task of how to clean up, rebuild and get back to normal.

Now a day after the fire, all Christopher Dahl can think about is work.

“You sit here, you feel guilty in doing almost anything else because you care so much about what you should be doing,” said Dahl.

Tuesday afternoon, he and other co-op employees watched helplessly for hours as his office and many others went up in flames.

“(I) called my boss, who was still here at work, and he said, ‘It’s not good, Chris,’” said Dahl.

Dahl now has to work from home, but with the internet server system down, trying to get work done with just his phone isn't easy, especially for this week.

It's payroll week for 300 co-op farmers across the U.S.

“Those deadlines are tomorrow,” said Dahl. “We're probably not going to meet those.”

Headquarter employees were told not to report to work Wednesday, but even so, at least a couple dozen showed up to start the cleanup process.

“It doesn't entirely feel real,” said Jamie Lamonde, public affairs director for Organic Valley. “It just all happened really fast, but everybody's really being supportive of each other.”

Some employees were let back in to gather any personal belongings they could find.

“The process today is really assessing the situation here at headquarters, taking a look at placement of our headquarter employees, assessing their ability to work from home and really trying to get our communication systems restored,” said Lamonde.

Lamonde said while the co-op's headquarters is badly damaged, Organic Valley customers shouldn't be affected.

“Our Cashton distribution center and all of our other facilities are fully operational, so we're accepting orders, shipping all of our deliveries on time,” said Lamonde.

While things may not be normal for a while, Dahl said all he and other employees can do is be patient.

“We just all need to sit back and do our parts and rely on each other, whether we're 5 feet apart or 10 miles apart," said Dahl.

Dahl said he hopes to issue all 300 paychecks by the end of the week, if not early next week at the latest.

Plans to temporarily relocate employees to other Organic Valley facilities should be finalized by the end of the week.

The building didn’t house any products or equipment, only offices.

Stittleberg said it may take another few days before a cause for the fire can be determined.

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