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Potato shed destroyed by fire

Firefighters battle a blaze at the L&M Produce building on Stateline Road Saturday afternoon. Firefighters from Fire District No. 1, Malin Rural Fire Dept., Tulelake Fire Dept., Merrill Fire Dept., U.S. Forest Service and Macy's Flying Service worked together on the fire that started around 1 p.m.

Fire at L&M Produce fueled by packing materials, pallets


Fire gutted the L&M Produce potato shed near the intersection of Stateline Road and Highway 39 Saturday afternoon.

"Nothing is salvageable," said Jon Ongman, chief of the Merrill Rural Fire Department.

High heat from burning cardboard boxes, plastic packing material and wooden pallets inside the 180-foot-by-120-foot building caused the metal skin of the shed to bend and buckle, he said. The roof of much of the main warehouse collapsed and part of the westside wall came down.

The cause of the fire, which started about 1 p.m., is under investigation by a team from Klamath Fire District No. 1.

"It's got a lot of damage, so it will take awhile to determine," said Scott Rice, deputy fire marshal.

Michael McKoen, general manager, was in the building doing inventory when the fire started, Rice said. About an hour earlier he had used a butane torch to cut pieces of angle iron.

He said the torch work could have caused the fire, but there are other possibilities investigators will check into. Michael McKoen got out unharmed and no injuries were reported.

Owned by Lee McKoen Jr., Michael McKoen's father, the building was built in the 1960s, said Kristine Golden, L&M Produce secretary. She said she heard radio traffic about the fire on a scanner she has at her Klamath Falls home and quickly drove down to the shed.

"When I pulled up and saw the smoke coming out - it just breaks your heart," she said.

Lee McKoen declined comment.

Golden said there were numerous other smaller businesses that rented out office space in the building, and Lee McKoen Jr.'s office for his farm.

"He spent countless hours working on water issues," she said.

No work crews were in the building Saturday.

A man passing by noticed the smoke and rushed into the Les Schwab tire store next door to the potato shed to call 911, said Marlan McAuliffe, a Les Schwab worker.

While the call was being made, McAuliffe, the man and another Les Schwab worker rushed over to the building because they saw Michael McKoen's pick-up parked out front.

Smoke billowed out of the building as they checked the doors, but all were locked.

Then one of the three front sliding doors opened mechanically, revealing the churning inferno inside, he said. But Michael McKoen didn't come out.

The men debated whether they should go in to try to find him.

"He (then) came out the front door, thank God," he said.

A volunteer firefighter with Tulelake Fire Department, Michael McKoen stayed on scene to fight the fire.

Merrill Rural Fire was the lead agency at the fire, and were helped by firefighters from Malin Rural Fire Dept., Fire District No. 1, the U.S. Forest Service and Macy's Flying Service. Numerous farmers also chipped, bringing in water trucks and flatbeds hauling plastic irrigation water tanks.

Responding to the fire was Fire District No. 1's newest truck, a $669,000 fire engine with a 100-foot hydraulic ladder and platform. Rice said it was the first time the truck was used on an active fire.

The fire put off a spire of smoke that first drifted to the northwest and was visible from Henley and then moved over the Lava Beds National Monument to the south after the wind shifted later in the afternoon.

Ongman said the fire was under control around 4 p.m., but crews would be on hand throughout the night, putting water on hot spots. Late Saturday afternoon, he said the fire was still hot in "little dinky rooms you can't get access to."

Much of the exterior tan paint peeled and cracked from the heat, exposing the shiny silver sheet metal. Windows burst and the "L&M" of the business' sign atop the building was blackened by flames that had licked up from a broken window.

Golden said the shed has about 45 employees, most seasonal, in November and December, the peak months of potato packing. The workers came down from Klamath Falls, Merrill and Malin and up from Tulelake and Newell. She said she didn't know what they will do for work.

"I don't know if I have a job," Golden said.

She said the insurance on the building was paid up and their agent was on the scene.

Earlier in the week, workers had cleaned up the building, getting it ready for the start of potato packing season. The first loads were come in Thursday, she added.

Records for the potato packing company are safe, Golden said, because she did a computer backup late last week and has them in the back of her car.

Linda McKoen, Lee McKoen Jr.'s sister in-law, watched the fire from the parking lot with mournful eyes.

Her husband and Lee McKoen's brother Mike McKoen had owned the shed with his brother in the late '90s. He was the "M" in L&M Produce and sold out his share of the company before he died in August 2001 of a heart attack at the age of 53.

Linda McKoen said her husband was involved in the potato business for more than a quarter-century at the shed. And the family ties to the spot stretch back even further.

Lee McKoen Sr. worked for more than six decades at the busy corner between Merrill and Tulelake where the fire occurred, she said. The elder McKoen first worked for potato packing giant A. Levi J. Zenter, but then bought out the shed which he later sold to his sons.

The company only dealt with potatoes and they shipped them to Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and, sometimes, overseas, she said.

"They had farmers who came there for 50 years, never took them anywhere else," Linda McKoen said.

She said the place was as much a social hub as it was a business, with people coming over for coffee and conversation.





Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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