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Fire rips through Keyes poultry facility
Gemperle fire
Firefighters work to control blazes at the Gemperle chicken plant in Keyes (JEFF BENZIGER/The Journal).

Strong winds helped fan the flames on a major fire that consumed a west Keyes agriculture industrial building used to process poultry eggs Thursday afternoon.

Multiple fire agencies including Ceres, Keyes, Hughson, Turlock and Modesto responded to the fire which broke at 12:59 p.m. at the Gemperle Farms facility on Bystrum Road south of Bronco Winery and east of Crows Landing Road. Flames started in the northern most of two buildings, sending up a large plume of smoke visible from Modesto to Delhi.

Gemperle Farms said they lost 280,000 hens in the fire. No human injuries were reported.

According to the Animal Welfare Institute, the fire at Gemperle Farms was California’s most devastating barn fire this year and the third deadliest for animals in the country.

“Poor things. A few were running around burnt and the workers were trying to catch them,” said Ceres Fire Chief Ken Wise, who described the metal building as a fully contained and automated three-level chicken house.

He called the fire a devastating loss for the company with preliminary estimates of chickens and building at roughly $6 million.

“The building was completely involved when I arrived,” said Ceres Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Serpa, “so anything that was inside is going to perish.”

The cause of the fire inside the large metal warehouse, which is several stories high with a footprint of about 200-feet by 400-feet, is unknown.

Complicating fire suppression was an initial lack of adequate water supplies. Serpa said a large-diameter fire hose was stretched an estimated 1,500 feet from Bronco Winery’s hydrant to a Ceres Fire engine. An on-site hydrant system fed the Ceres aerial ladder truck. Eight water tenders were busy shuttling water to fire engines on the site.

Serpa said 11 Type 1 engines were on scene, eight water tenders and ladder trucks from Ceres and Turlock fire departments. Other agencies dispatching firefighters and apparatus were Hughson, Keyes, Denair, Ceres, Westport, Burbank, Woodland Avenue, Newman, Patterson, Salida, Mountain View, Turlock Rural and City. Two tenders were dispatched from Merced County.

The fire touched off several small spot fires in fields that had to be contained, Serpa noted.