A raging, windswept blaze destroyed three 530-foot-long henhouses and damaged another at a commercial egg farm in Warwick, Md. on Monday night, causing at least $1.4 million in damage, fire officials reported. More than 300,000 laying hens also perished, according to Paul Fischer, senior project manager for ISE America Inc., which owns the farm at 605 Sassafras Road.
Warwick is about five miles from Middletown and 21 miles south of Newark.
The cause of the blaze remained unknown as of Tuesday night. About 130 firefighters from 21 volunteer fire companies from as far away as Queen Anne's County battled the quick-spreading blaze for six hours before bringing it under control, fire officials said. Six similar henhouses, including the partially damaged one, remained standing on Tuesday, and modified egg production continued in five of them.
At full capacity, according to Fischer, the Sassafras Road farm ships out 700,000 eggs daily to several major supermarket chains in the northeastern corridor. Including 12 truck drivers, 42 employees work at that farm, he noted.
On Tuesday, workers were trucking eggs from four of the henhouses to a processing plant on the farm, because the blaze had destroyed the conveyor.
Meanwhile, at least three detectives with the Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office looked for clues in the smoky remains of the henhouses.
"We're still trying to determine the area of origin and the cause of the fire," Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Mark A. Bilger said.
A passerby called 911 about 7:20 p.m. on Monday after seeing flames shooting from one of the henhouses, fire officials said.
Dispatchers signaled a second alarm at 7:33 p.m., after the first responders reported fire engulfing one of the henhouses, fire officials said.
"As we were setting up our water supply and positioning our (equipment), there was enough fire and enough wind that it jumped to the next building," said Bobby Plato, chief of Cecilton Volunteer Fire Co.
About 130 firefighters ultimately responded to the scene, he said.
All nine volunteer fire companies in Cecil County sent firefighters and equipment, as did four companies from Kent County, one from Sudlersville in Queen Anne's County and seven from Delaware, he said.
The list of emergency vehicles included at least a dozen tankers, five ambulances, four ladder trucks, two brush (fire) trucks and numerous fire engines, Plato added.
"This was the biggest fire I've ever been on, and it's the biggest fire — in terms of damage — that I've ever been on," said Plato, who has been a firefighter for 11 years, as a volunteer here and as a professional in Howard County.
An ambulance transported Earl Bowman, a firefighter with the New Castle Fire Department, to Union Hospital in Elkton after he injured his wrist, fire officials reported.
Plato said a second firefighter also was injured. That firefighter was treated at the scene, but refused an ambulance ride to the hospital, he added.
In addition to the wind, the tight space between the adjacent henhouses posed problems for firefighters, according to Plato.
"We had limited access to the sides of the buildings, just a single lane," Plato said, explaining that, as a result, firefighters couldn't effectively battle the blaze from all angles.
A few fire companies returned to the farm briefly on Tuesday morning because a piece of wood in the damaged henhouse rekindled, Plato reported.
The blaze caused an estimated $700,000 in damage to four henhouses while destroying approximately $700,000 worth of property inside of them, including the hens, according to the state fire marshal's office.
Fischer, however, believes the equipment lost in the fire is more expensive now than it was when it was purchased years ago.
"The replacement cost will be much more," Fischer said.
He said the wood-framed henhouses, which contained commercial hen cages, industrial fans and various egg production equipment, were 54 feet wide and 530 feet long.
The blaze destroyed House 2, House 3 and House 4 while damaging House 5, he reported.
While House 2 and House 4 each contained about 68,000 hens, House 3 held approximately 85,000 hens, according to Fischer.
House 5, meanwhile, contained about 144,000 hens, Fischer said.
"We lost about 50 to 60 percent of them, maybe from smoke inhalation. We had to turn the (industrial) fans offs, so the fire wouldn't spread any more than it already was," he added, referring to House 5.
The five henhouses that were untouched by the fire hold similar numbers of hens, Fischer noted. Counting the ones that survived in House 5, the farm still has more than 400,000 hens, he reported.
Although more than 300,000 hens perished, the blaze left no visible signs of them.
"They were incinerated," Fischer said.
Losing about 300,000 laying hens will have no impact on the price of eggs, according to Fischer.
ISE America of Warwick also owns six egg farms in South Carolina and New Jersey, as well as a facility off Route 282 near Cecilton, less than a mile from the Sassafras Road operation, and another in Millington.