TOWN OF CAMPBELL, Wis. - The skeleton of a crane towered above the firefighters early Sunday morning as they soaked one by one the charred railroad ties pulled out of the pile that started burning between 10 and 11 p.m. Saturday on the south end of French Island.
Neighbors of the facility, which shreds railroad ties for burning in Xcel Energy's French Island Generating Plant, noticed the flicker of a fire around 11 p.m. and called 911. A Campbell police officer on routine patrol had checked the facility at 817 Bainbridge St. around 10 p.m. and saw nothing.
The fire quickly grew and when Campbell firefighters arrived, fire was licking at the shredder, around the crane that lifted ties into the shredder, which is about at long as a city bus, and beside a large metal storage container next to it. Fire had not gotten into an open-air building the shredder pours it shards into.
Firefighters spent about two and a half hours knocking down the flames as it was. Had the shredded ties that partially filled the building caught, Campbell Fire Chief Gary Bauer said they would have been there all night.
Campbell and La Crescent, Minn., firefighters, with their backs to the shredded ties that they first soaked, attacked the fire. They also had to go into the flames next to the container to cut loose some tanks of welding gases that were chained in place.
From the container they removed more welding equipment, the chief said. And they made certain to keep a diesel fuel tank initially in the midst of the flames as cool as possible.
As it was, up to 10 small explosions popped from the blaze, according to Bauer and Campbell police officers at the scene. The chief speculated some explosions could have come from the crane's hydraulic cylinders, but he wasn't certain.
Ron Donahue, manager of the shredding operation, assisted the fight by using a front-end loader to lift burning bundles of ties from the pile. With smoke sometimes engulfing his cab, firefighters trained their hoses on the orange glow between the bundled ties as he moved them.
"He had a lot of (guts) going in with that front-end loader," Bauer said, noting Donahue was "fabulous" to work with.
Bauer was not worried the fire would reach the five or so houses neighboring the operation, because between it and the homes was a yard - of more than an acre - of steel beams. Nothing flammable.
The smoke, however, worried him. Because ties are treated with creosote, the smoke from the fire was potentially toxic, but a light wind carried it away over the river, rather than into the neighborhood, he said. So, it wasn't necessary to evacuate anyone, he said.
Bauer didn't think the fire was suspicious, because an employee of the operation had been welding at the site Saturday afternoon and creosote is extremely flammable.
In the almost 12 years the shredding operation has been at the site, welding - which is done to repair and maintain the equipment - had never caused a fire, Donahue told the Tribune. A water line is run to the site and it is soaked after each welding session. He also noted he had sprayed down the shredder about noon Saturday after changing its oil, and the employee who was welding also wet down the area.
Bauer doesn't expect to call for an investigation.
The operation, formerly owned by Rail Systems Inc., was sold in February to The Tie Yard of Omaha, according to Donahue.
The Xcel plant has gotten most of its shredded ties from Rail Systems Inc., according to a February 2002 Tribune article. Rail Systems received its ties from a five state area, primarily from CP Rail.
Chris Baldus can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (608)791-8217.