Animals chewing on wires underneath the refrigerated trailers at Maricopa Pantry may have been the cause of Monday’s devastating fire that destroyed the food bank and all its contents.
Thunderbird Fire District Fire Chief Alan Allcott said that while it is too early in the investigation to determine a cause, there are indications of what may have sparked the blaze.
“We haven’t determined a cause,” Allcott said. “Early comments from people who were there are that they noticed an animal, maybe a dog or cat, under one of the trailers. Someone climbed underneath the trailer to try to get the animal out and found that some of the wires had been chewed and shorted out, and there was actually a fire underneath one of the semi-trailers.”
Jim Shoaf, the founder and CEO of Maricopa Pantry, said his group had served about 125 people Monday morning. A volunteer at the food bank, Tim Bennett, saw a fire under trailer four and attempted to contain the fire, first with a fire extinguisher then a hose, but was unable to put it out.
There was an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting taking place in the church at the site, Mountain View Community Church, at the time and the attendees had to be evacuated from the building, Shoaf explained.
“They got AA out of there and called the fire department, and while the fire department was coming, we moved the box truck and two forklifts, so we didn’t lose them, and it just went from there. I probably lost everything.”
Allcott said animals chewing on wires and stripping off the protective coating can cause a spark.
“These were refrigerated box cars, so they were running off of diesel generators on the front of them to keep the refrigeration units going. We haven’t had any real time to do the investigation, nor is there much to investigate at this point.
“These were six semi-trailers full of canned food and refrigerated goods and things like that,” Allcott continued. “When that burns and drops through the floor, then you just have huge piles of food with all the paper and wrapping and all that stuff continuing to burn. And with all the wind we had last night and yesterday, we didn’t need it spreading to the church itself, so we stayed there until it was completely out.”
He said he and his crew were on the scene for just under eight hours, from the initial call at 12:14 p.m. until just before 8 p.m. Allcott said it took that long to completely subdue the fire.
Allcott said that Thunderbird Fire District has the primary jurisdiction on the investigation, which took place in an unincorporated portion of Pinal County southwest of Maricopa and the Ak-Chin Community at Ralston and Papago roads.
Chris Bolinger, Deputy Chief of the Maricopa Fire/Medical Department, said three MFMD units – a ladder truck, and engine and a battalion chief – were dispatched to the incident and the department also deployed its water tender to the scene to serve as a mobile water supply.
“Our crews made an aggressive fire attack from a defensive posture, meaning that they did not fight fire from inside of any structures, and worked with our fire response partners in the jurisdiction to search the nearby buildings for any victims and clear those structures,” Bolinger said. “There were no injuries, and our units turned over the scene to HVFD after the primary searches were completed and the main body of fire was brought under control.”
Shoaf said he is unsure how he will move forward.
“I’ve got to decide which way I want to go,” Shoaf said. “I know I can rebuild but I know it’s not going to be quick. I’ve got to maybe get a dozer in here and get this cleaned up, then maybe get a couple of freezer or refrigeration units in, then we can put in a warehouse later. I can get this cleaned up and get those in, then I can start serving the people again. But we’re looking at weeks before I can even make a decision on which way I want to go.”
Jim Bussey, a local resident who benefits from Maricopa Pantry said he and his wife come to the Pantry occasionally.
“We come out for food, my wife and I, we’re both disabled,” Bussey said. “It’s just terrible. He helps so many people. It’s just a treasure to the community. This is a tragedy. The main thing is that they saved the church, because everything is built around it – it’s the foundation.”
Those who wish to contribute to relief and rebuilding efforts may donate directly via PayPal at: PayPal.me/maricopapantry, or GoFundMe at: https://www.gofundme.com/f/rebuild-fund-for-maricopa-pantry-fire