Local News

Fire hits sweet-potato warehouse in Duplin County

Posted April 26, 2009 11:46 p.m. EDT
Updated April 27, 2009 6:28 p.m. EDT

— A multiple-alarm fire at a Duplin County warehouse that stored sweet potatoes was mostly extinguished late Monday, although hot spots continued to smoke nearly a day after the fire started.

More than 60 fire departments and hundreds of firefighters from at least six counties responded after a fire broke out at Southern Produce Distributors, 111 West Center St., around 9:30 p.m. Sunday, authorities said.

"I was walking last night, and I smelled it," said the company's owner Stewart Precythe.

Burning wooden crates made it too dangerous to enter the warehouse, and firefighters took defensive measures to keep the fire from spreading beyond the building, said Duplin County Emergency Services director Brian Pearce. The fire was contained to the 40,000-square-foot section of the 120,000-square-foot warehouse, he said.

"A single county, on a fire like this, could not handle it themselves," said Reid Sutherland, with Duplin County emergency management.

No one was injured, but approximately 200,000 bushels – or roughly 10 million pounds – of sweet potatoes were destroyed, estimated Precythe.

He said the fire might have been started by some air compressors and boxes outside the warehouse. Investigators have not determined a cause.

Firefighters pumped more than a million gallons of water on the fire, nearly depleting the town of Faison's water supply. County water and wells were tapped to replenish it.

"We've issued fliers today, just asking people to conserve today. We should be back up and running tomorrow," said Jimmy Tyndall, with Faison's public-works department.

Precythe recalled that another warehouse he owned on the same site burned to the ground in April 1988. Firefighters who remembered that blaze said it took three days to put out.

"My daddy said not to put all my eggs in one basket. I got potatoes all over North Carolina. I got potatoes in Mississippi, Louisiana," he said. "We’ll be shipping potatoes. We’ll keep our customers supplied."

Precythe called the destruction of the warehouse by fire a second time "unbelievable," but said his family is up to the task of keeping their business running.

"We've dealt with adversity before, ... and we'll build it back," he vowed.