Depending on its location, storage space for whiskey barrels during the aging process is known as a rickhouse, rackhouse or a plain old warehouse. As heat rises, temperatures become warmer and drier in the upper levels of the space, meaning the whiskey ages faster and produces a higher proof spirit.
Emergency responders in Woodford County, Kentucky, agree that on the night of July 2, 2019, the contents of one warehouse containing 45,000 barrels of bourbon got way too warm way too fast.
“It was probably one of the biggest fires this county has seen in quite a while,” said John Smith, chief of the Woodford County Fire Protection District.
An eight-story tall masonry structure burdened with enough Jim Beam to fill roughly six million bottles was lost to the flames. A massive fish kill blamed on alcohol-laden runoff further added to the loss.
Firefighters concentrated their efforts on protecting surrounding exposures to prevent the fire’s spread. Despite being equipped with sprinklers, the initial construction ablaze at the scene was almost immediately written off as beyond saving, Smith said.
“It was just too far gone to do anything with,” he said.
Distillers in Kentucky produce 95 percent of the world’s bourbon. If the name “Woodford” sounds familiar, the county is home to Woodford Reserve, a brand of premium small batch Kentucky straight bourbon dubbed the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. Likewise, whiskey makers Castle & Key and Glenn’s Creek both distill and age their product here.
Jim Beam, renown as the world’s best-selling bourbon, is distilled in Bullitt County, but stored at various locations in Kentucky, including Woodford County.
Drew Chandler, emergency management director for Woodford County, describes the Jim Beam warehouses as nestled in a small valley located on Glenn’s Creek, a tributary of the Kentucky River.
“There were four warehouses in the immediate vicinity of the fire,” he said. “Then, across the creek, they had three more.”
The location harkens back to the days when distilleries used river barges rather than trucks to move their products. However, these block and brick warehouses, each easily covering the dimensions of a football field, only trace their origins back to the mid-1970s.
“The ricking, or shelving, and the floors are made of wood,” Chandler said. “The wood construction is to eliminate the possibility of sparking. But the superstructures are all block and brick.”
Fires involving whiskey warehouses are nothing new. In 1996, Heaven Hill in Bardstown, KY, lost seven of 44 warehouses located on elevated ground to flames fanned by wind gust of 75 mph (See “Whiskey River Scorches Heaven Hill” in the January/February 1997 issue of IFW). When the warehouses collapsed, the burning alcohol freed from the crushed barrels ran downhill, damaging much of the company’s distillery below.
In 2000, the partial collapse of a whiskey warehouse at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, KY, ignited a fire that sent flaming liquor pouring directly into the Kentucky River (“Whiskey River Encore,” May/June 2000 issue of IFW). More recently, two whiskey warehouse collapses have been reported in the last 15 months, although fire was avoided in both cases.
The only whiskey warehouse fire on John Smith’ resume prior to July happened back in the mid-1980s when he first began serving as a volunteer for the Woodford County Fire Protection District. However, that fire was distinctly non-alcoholic in nature.
“To me, being new, that was a big fire,” Smith said. “But there wasn’t any whiskey kept there. It was just an abandoned building.”
Today, the fire district protects nearly 190 square miles with a network of six stations, 10 firefighters assigned to each. Smith, who became fire chief in 2018, is one of only three fulltime firefighters employed by the district.
“We have a Class A pumper at every station,” Smith said. “Most stations have their own 1,800 gallon water tanker. We just invested in a 3,000 gallon tanker with a drop tank to supplement them. We also have various mini-pumpers to handle vehicle and grass fires.”
Woodford Reserve’s new tax incentives had paid to send fire district firefighters to Texas A&M University’s Brayton Fire Training Field for specialized instruction on what to expect in the event of a whiskey warehouse catastrophe.
“Dealing with an alcohol fire, it’s good to know how to operate a Blitzfire and other big monitors,” Smith said. “It gives you a feel for the hose line and what to expect.”
Station #2 in Millville was the closest fire house to the Jim Beam fire only a couple of miles away. At the time of the first alarm the weather was calm. However, the National Weather Service confirmed there were rain showers in the vicinity that night and “a few” lightning strikes were recorded along the Franklin-Woodford county lines.
Smith said lightning was possibly to blame for the warehouse fire.
“We have some video showing lightning in the area of the warehouse,” Smith said. “The guard shack at the front gate had cameras but they weren’t trained on the warehouse when the lightning first hit.”
When Smith’s pager went off at about 11:35 p.m. he was home and had just gone to sleep.
“When you hear that a warehouse full of whiskey is on fire you know it’s going to be a long night,” Smith said.
Because the emergency had been reported by a security guard on duty rather than an automatic alarm Smith opted to respond directly to the scene. Meanwhile, fire district volunteers mustered at the nearest stations to break out the fire pumpers.
“We don’t have a lot of people that work night shifts around here,” Smith said. “Most of them work days and that’s when it’s harder to get people to the station. At night, when they hear there is a working fire, we always get a good turnout.”
At first, with flames showing at one corner of the warehouse, the fire seemed potentially manageable, Smith said. That quickly changed. By the time responders were ready to challenge the fire it had spread to a second corner and threatened to jump to the loading dock of the next closest warehouse.
Making the protection of exposures a priority, Smith had large-volume portable attack monitors from Woodford and Franklin counties and the city of Versailles placed to maintain a water curtain protecting three other warehouses. Ordinarily, water is too precious for a rural fire department to consider such extravagant tactics but, for once, Smith found himself blessed with ample supplies.
“Less than a year earlier the water district in Frankfort had extended a 12-inch water line to serve this warehouse site and others nearby,” Smith said. “We speculate we used nearly four million gallons of water fighting the fire.”
Besides the fire, Smith also addressed establishment of a staging area for the many resources needed for a fire this big. This was important because the mutual aid was already in route from the municipal departments in Versailles, the county seat, and Winchester, together with firefighters from Franklin and Fayette counties.
“The only way to get to the scene was a narrow, two-lane road,” Smith said. “We shut down the road to anything but emergency traffic within a one-mile radius. We did have a lot of people wanting to come in there.”
Mindful that Lexington, the second biggest city in the state, was only 15 miles away, Smith also set up a staging area about half a mile from the fire scene where the expected flood of media could be briefed. Handling the press fell largely to Chandler, being the chief officer for the county on the scene.
“There was a unified command involving our office, the fire departments and the state’s environmental emergency response team,” he said. “My services were needed in different capacities than rubbernecking at the fire scene.”
The Environmental Protection Agency soon became a major player in the unified command structure in place, Smith said.
“They were sweating bullets,” he said. “We came to an agreement that it would probably be best just to let the alcohol burn and have a lot less of an environmental mess to clean up.”
Courtesy of Woodford Reserve, the Woodford County Fire Protection District has access to nearly four totes of alcohol-resistant aqueous film forming foam. Unfortunately, the terrain and other obstructions made it too difficult to sustain an unbroken foam blanket to smother the flames.
“The back wall of the warehouse sat about two feet above the creek,” Smith said. “We couldn’t tell how much runoff we already had because it was so hot you couldn’t get close.”
That heat only got worse hours later when the warehouse collapsed in a roaring fireball of unrelenting thermal radiation that was enough to melt the taillights on the nearest pumper.
“We’re definitely keeping those as a conversation piece,” Smith said.
Earlier, when the fire curtain diminished slightly, it tipped the firefighters that the sprinkler system in the building had activated. Now, with the building in rubble, water from the compromised system flowed unchecked and undirected.
The excessive heat that made it impossible to tap the building’s fire department connection earlier now kept firefighters from shutting off the water being wasted, Smith said. Still, most of the remaining flames were successfully kept confined to the burning pit where formerly the warehouse stood.
Fortunately, Jim Beam was quick to provide help as well, Smith said. Hired by the company, Perdue Environmental Contracting Company (PECCO), specializing in environmental cleanup, soon arrived and took charge of the runoff issue.
“When the warehouse first vented the runoff that didn’t go into the water ran into a containment area they had set up,” Smith said.
Despite their best efforts, a sizeable amount of runoff made it to the creek. Ultimately, the plume would extend into the Ohio River nearly 70 miles away, Chandler said. He quoted the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife as saying that restocking would be necessary to build the fish population back.
“There are some water-based commerce operations that were impacted by the environmental issues,” Chandler said.
Firefighters maintained a watch for the next three and a half days before returning the fire scene to the property owners.
A statement released by Jim Beam stated that the whiskey lost was relatively young and that the fire would not impact the availability of finished product to consumers.
“Kentucky has what’s called a barrel tax,” Chandler said. “It is a mathematical equation to value the contents in an inventory of the barrels. As whiskey matures, it goes up in value which determines the barrel taxes paid.”
Typically, a barrel of whiskey contains 53 gallons of product. Jim Beam operates 125 barrel warehouses in the state holding about 3.3 million barrels.
Woodford Reserves maintains a much larger presence in Woodford County than other distillers in the state. What was the site of Smith’s first warehouse fire more than 30 years ago is now home to one of the most modern and sophisticated distillery operations in the country.
“It’s a very high tech operation,” Smith said. “Because they employ special techniques to speed up the aging process there are all kinds of monitoring systems in place. But even with all of that a lightning strike during a storm is one of those things you can never predict.”
As an edge against that risk, Woodford Reserve provides the fire protection district with equipment and training to better deal with a crisis such as a warehouse fire. However, careful analysis of the Jim Beam response may point to further steps needed, Smith said.
“We had to call in a ladder truck from the city of Versailles,” he said. “It may be time to think about acquiring one for the fire protection district.”