Fire and smoke damaged about two-thirds of the Organic Valley headquarters in La Farge on Tuesday when flames quickly spread through the walls of the nation’s largest organic cooperative.
No one was injured, but only a third of the building was untouched by fire or smoke, CEO George Siemon said.
“This is a very sad moment,” he said. “Lots of tears.”
It’s unclear what caused the fire. Siemon said it started small and grew fast.
It broke out when most employees were preparing to leave for the day, but the headquarters was scheduled to host a large dinner Tuesday evening.
Employees evacuated from the building watched as the executive offices and human resources department burned from the inside out.
Crews ripped open the roof, cutting around solar panels to get at the flames. Other parts of the exterior bear scorch marks.
“It’s been a lot harder to get out than I ever imagined,” Siemon said about 7 p.m. as firefighters doused the few remaining flames.
The La Farge Fire Department responded, and the Viola, Viroqua and Westby fire departments were all eventually called for mutual aid.
Richland Center’s aerial unit was also paged.
The Westby page noted that “air packs” were needed. Firefighters wear air packs in situations that involve significant smoke.
Employees thought firefighters had the blaze contained about 5:30 p.m. But an hour later, dispatchers called for more tanker trucks, a sign that crews were still working an active fire inside.
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About 400 people work in the building, a company spokeswoman said.
“There’s no doubt there’s going to be a lot of disruption and making do,” Siemon said. “We’ve got contingency plans. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.”
Cooperative Region Organic Producers Pool, which markets products under the Organic Valley brand, is the nation’s largest co-operative of organic farmers, with more than 1,800 members in the United States and Canada. The headquarters building opened in 2006 and was expanded in 2010 and 2011.
The company’s new Cashton facility could serve as a makeshift headquarters until officials can determine what, if any, of the La Farge building can be salvaged.
The company had record sales in 2012, buoyed by an influx of more than 200 new farms. And earlier this year it announced plans for a major expansion into foreign markets.
“We’ve got plans,” Siemon said. “We’ll keep things going.”
Vernon County Broadcaster Editor Matt Johnson contributed to this report.
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