Fire!One of Ilwaco's worst episodes blew up in the center of town late in September 1979. A gasoline truck was unloading fuel at the longtime fuel distribution center of Turner and Sons when its hose broke. Petrol hit hot metal and exploded into a blazing whirlwind, announcing itself to the whole town in four or five thunderous detonations.
Ilwaco firemen came on the run. The conflagration stunned them. Flames shot 30 feet in the air; a pillar of black smoke boiled away into the heavens. It was a horrible scene.
Ilwaco Volunteer Fire Department Chief Slub Harju was dumbstruck: "When I arrived on the scene, I couldn't believe the sight, it was just an inferno. ... 'Somebody said, 'Is the driver out?' and I said 'If he isn't, it's far too late to be worrying about it.' "
" 'It seemed like it took forever to get the hoses out, but it was probably only a few minutes,' Harju said.
Long Beach Fire Department Chief George Gradt scrambled 27 men and their equipment to the scene - Ilwaco had a unknown number of firemen working - and together with citizens who came from every corner of town, "with four trucks pumping from every available outlet and hydrant, the fire was under control within 40 minutes." Cape Disappointment Coast Guard station sent all the fire extinguishing foam they could spare.
This was the fire that might well have destroyed Ilwaco.
"Milton Fox of Tacoma, driver of the 9100-gallon Shell gasoline truck and trailer, said he almost made the casualty list.
" 'I had unloaded all three compartments of the trailer and had unloaded the front section of the truck,' Fox said. 'I was standing on the running board adjusting the "rpms" when I felt heat at my back.
" 'I looked back and there were flames coming from under the truck. I got outta there but fast." There was approximately 2,000 gallons of gas in the tank when the fire ignited.
" 'I jumped from the truck and started running. ... I turned around and fell down and then heard an explosion.' "
Fox raced for a telephone. " 'I ran to the yellow house (across Main Street from Turner and Son) to call the fire department and I didn't even touch the door knob,' Fox said. 'The lady was at the door and opened it. I went right on through and she said it's (the phone) right over there.'
"Shirley Johnson, a bookkeeper at Tetz Oil Co., separated from Turner and Sons by a cyclone fence, said she saw gas leaking from under the tanker truck just before the fire broke out. 'It was just seconds after I noticed the leak that the front of the truck burst into flames,' Mrs. Johnson said."
Scott Turner, the operating manager of Turner and Sons, made the trip to Ilwaco from Raymond in record time.
" 'I don't give a damn about trucks, loading docks or any other equipment you can name. I'm just glad no one was hurt.' "
The fire had consumed Turner's loading dock, a number of rubber tires and approximately four-dozen car batteries. A retaining wall separated the conflagration from several 25,000-gallon-capacity fuel storage tanks.
"In battling the blaze, firefighters poured untold gallons of water on five storage tanks located behind the loading dock. Trophy Hughes, manager of the Ilwaco Turner and Son distribution plant, said one tank contained 7,000 gallons of super grade gasoline, another contained 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel, one contained 14,000 gallons of regular gas, another had 7,000 gallons of unleaded gas and a small tank was filled with 3,200 gallons of 'super.'
"Turner said it would be difficult to set one of the tanks ablaze when they have so much fuel in them. 'Unless the tanks become fully engulfed, the fuel acts as a cooling agent,' he said.
Up the hill at the hospital, administrator Don Stubsen had hoses laid out on the roof when burning embers began to come the hospital's way, and he called in all off-duty nurses in case there were injuries. He alerted the hospital in Astoria, which had three ambulances, two paramedics, and operating room crew and a physician standing by, just in case. Everyone involved felt it was a miracle that no one was injured.
The PUD sent a crew to deal with melted power lines. Police officers controlled traffic and the inevitable crowds.
When things were under control, Ilwaco mayor Les Peterson joined Turner and Stubsen in thanking everyone. No words were enough.
After the embers were cold, sober contemplations began. The City of Ilwaco was fortunate that this fire was not the disaster it might have been. What if it happened again? Was it really wise to have huge amounts of fuel stored in the center of town? Telephone Utilities wondered to itself if they really wanted to be next door to a fuel distribution center.
"Turner Calls It Quits; Plant Goes To Raymond," read the lead headline in the February 28, 1980, Observer.
"Scott Turner of Raymond, owner and operator of the Turner and Son, Inc., Shell bulk fuel plant in Ilwaco, announced this week he will, as soon as possible, move his entire Ilwaco operation to Raymond rather than build a new loading dock. ...
" 'Since the fire in September,' said Turner, 'they have been doing everything they possibly can to continue to delay my efforts to rebuild the loading dock. I can't wait and hurt my business any more.' 'They,' he said, included town council members, fire officials and others.
"Turner said the final decision to abandon plans to rebuild in Ilwaco came after he read recent accounts in the local newspapers about opposition to his plans from a local hardware store owner, Telephone Utilities, Inc., the town council, and through petitions circulating in the downtown Ilwaco area.
" 'It looked like they were going to tar and feather me,' Turner said, 'so my decision is to run the plant down to bare ground, sell all the equipment and sell the property as soon as possible. I'm putting my money into improving my Raymond plant. ... but will continue to serve customers here. ... TU really gets my goat. They chose that spot to build in Ilwaco back in the sixties. There were three oil plants operating there already. Now they seem to be the big leader in the campaign to get me out of town.'
"The Shell bulk fuel storage plant has been operating in Ilwaco since 1926 ... Turner said he is very discouraged about the treatment he has received from people in Ilwaco since the fire. He said one man called him and told him not to rebuild the loading dock. If he did, the anonymous caller said, he would 'see a lot more trouble than the fire' in September. He said a woman caller from Ilwaco threatened to burn his plant down if he rebuilt his loading dock. ...
" 'I thought my business was an asset to the community. I guess I'm alone in that thought. It's not my choice. I've been forced to make the decision by the ones in power. I don't like to be disliked.' He added that he has owned a home in Seaview since 1945 and has been in operation in Pacific County since 1938.
" 'I regret the whole thing happening,' Turner concluded. 'I considered the Ilwaco plant a good business for myself, the town and its people. Economically, it would have been better for me to rebuild there. But they've made it clear by their actions they don't want me in Ilwaco.' " - (Feb. 28, 1980).
Eight months after Turner closed his plant in Ilwaco, Telephone Utilities officials announced that "a large reduction in staff at the Ilwaco TU office is planned over the next two and a half years that will move the operations now carried out there to Portland or Vancouver." The problem, officials said, was that "Ilwaco doesn't provided the centralized location needed for such service. ... Ilwaco is a very remote location, business-wise." At the time of the announcement, about 100 persons were employed at the Ilwaco office.