HANFORD — Firefighters worked through the night Thursday to fight a rural blaze that destroyed a walnut dehydrator and caused millions of dollars in damage.

Rick Smith, assistant chief for the Kings County Fire Department, said the fire was reported just before 8 p.m. in the 9400 block of Excelsior Avenue. Smith said the property, owned by Tos Farms Inc., includes two metal buildings that house walnut dehydrators. The larger of the two buildings had caught fire.

Smith said the natural gas that powers the machine, paired with the oil in several tons of walnuts, provided ample fuel for the massive fire. Firefighters turned off the gas and focused their efforts on keeping the fire from spreading to the other building, which was only about 10 feet away.

Lacking a water supply, Smith said, firefighters had to shuttle large amounts of water from the nearby Kings River Hardwick Elementary School. Fire departments from Lemoore, Fresno County and Tulare County assisted with extinguishing the fire.

Meanwhile, the building began to collapse as the heat softened the building’s metal support beams. Smith said firefighters used a ladder truck to try to access areas where water was needed.

Smith said firefighters will remain on scene until the remains of the building can be removed to uncover any areas that are still burning.

Reached by phone Friday, Tos Farms co-owner Bill Tos declined to comment on the situation.

Because firefighters were able to save the smaller facility, valued at about $3 million, Smith said Tos Farms will be able to continue processing its walnut harvest. He valued the loss at about $5 million to $6 million.

This is the second time Tos Farms has had its operation affected by fire. On Oct. 16, 2003, a morning blaze damaged a packing shed used for walnut drying and processing.

In October 2011, a fire destroyed a Hanford Walnut Co. warehouse on East Lacey Boulevard. The loss prompted owners Rick and Gary Daloyan to sell the company’s name and remaining equipment.

Walnut harvesting typically begins in late August and continues through November.

Hanford walnut farmer and Kings County Supervisor Doug Verboon said he visited Tos Farms on Friday morning. He said the threat of fire is a constant concern for walnut growers, requiring routine inspections and making sure insurance policies stay current.

Verboon said Tos Farms has a “state-of-the-art facility.” 

“They’re just disillusioned about why this happened to them,” Verboon said.

Verboon said unprocessed walnuts are green, wet and dirty. Growers have to clean them, sort out the bad ones and reduce the moisture content to 8 percent. The dehydration not only optimizes the taste and texture, but prevents mold from forming and reduces the chance of spontaneous combustion.

Prior to dehydration, walnuts are placed into metal drying bins that hold about 10,000 pounds of walnuts. Dehydrators use a gas flame to heat the nuts to 110 degrees, a process which can take up to 24 hours. The machines must be inspected weekly to remove debris that can potentially ignite.

“Everybody does everything they can to keep them clean,” Verboon said.

Because of the way walnut dehydrators work, Smith said, it may be difficult to determine exactly what sparked the fire.

“That’s an inherently dangerous sort of operation because of the high volumes of natural gas that flow through there,” Smith said.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2458 or meiman@HanfordSentinel.com.


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