One of Moody County’s largest employers is recovering from an early-morning blaze that took eight fire departments and community help to put out.
The fire at T&R Electric in Colman was reported about 4 a.m. July 1, by an employee on site, the company said. Security cameras on the property show a lightning strike likely started the fire, said Kirsten Taggart, vice president of compliance.
“You can see that lightning struck, but you can’t see where it hit,” she said.
The company ended up losing three of its 13 buildings and the contents, which included vehicles, transformer components, dry transformers and switch gears.
“We are just so thankful for all the area fire departments and all the people that assisted. Businesses, the community support we saw today was just amazing,” said Shane Roth, production manager.
Privately-owned T&R is the country’s largest supplier of remanufactured and rebuilt transformers and employs about 230 people, making it one of the largest employers in the county.
None of the company’s workers were injured in the fire, and employees were able to continue manufacturing while firefighters extinguished the flames in nearby buildings. One firefighter was injured after being hit near the eye with an object.
The loss from the fire hasn’t been calculated, Taggart said. But no one will lose their jobs because the fire didn’t involve the production area where most employees work. The company may have to hire extra people to help clean up after the fire, she said.
“We always pull through these things and move forward,” she said.
The company had at least one fire in the past, a blaze at a Main Street location in 1971 that also was caused by lightning.
Colman Fire Chief Jason Landis said he could see the glow in the sky from the Flandreau exit when he was driving to the fire in the early morning hours. Twenty-three of the department’s 29 members showed up at the fire, but the total number of firefighters was closer to 100, he said.
Departments in Madison, Wentworth, Flandreau, Trent, Dell Rapids, Chester and Nunda also responded. Aerial ladders from Colman, Madison, Wentworth and Flandreau shot water from above the buildings to put the flames out.
“They go up to 1,000 gallons a minute running with water,” Landis said. The firefighters started using water from Colman but had to go to surrounding communities to haul enough water and keep up. After Colman, they took water from Dakota Ethanol, John Deere in Madison and River’s Edge in Flandreau, Landis said.
The fire started in one building and spread to another building to the north, completely destroying both. It also spread to the building south of the first building, but firefighters were able to save half of that building, he said.
His biggest worry was that the fire would jump to other buildings. Without the help of farmers and ag industry companies constantly hauling water, crews likely wouldn’t have had as much success putting out the flames, he said.
In addition to tankers from the fire departments, local farmers and businesses had more than 24 trucks hauling water to fight the fire, he said.
“The farmers stepped up and did it on their own,” he said. “The local businesses and local farmers that lended a hand hauling water was unbelievable. We would not have been able to keep up without the farmers and local ag businesses.”
Other businesses and citizens provided food, water and sports drinks for the firefighters.
The fire was the biggest one that Landis has ever fought. “It was very, very intense.”
He said the state fire marshal visited the site Thursday, but the fire was still considered to be under investigation, with no cause officially named.
Landis spent his time coordinating the emergency response to the fire. Besides running ladder trucks, firefighters had plenty to do with pumping the water and continually getting it delivered to the trucks. “Everybody’s got their job. They do it well.”
Some of the firefighters were on the scene until 7 p.m. Thursday night, and others checked on the fire every two hours throughout the night. At midnight, they ended up extinguishing a flareup, but the fire was completely out Thursday morning.
A lot of Colman people work at T&R, making the fire a traumatic event for the community.
“It’s their living, their lives. It’s a big deal in Colman,” he said. “T&R lost a tremendous amount of their business.”