HED: Fire rages near airport
By Gary Perilloux
Tons of cardboard fueled a black tower of smoke for hours Saturday in an industrial fire so hot it boiled water on concrete near the Tupelo Regional Airport.
No lives were lost and the Tupelo Fire Department held damage at a minimum to a 15,000-square-foot warehouse at AAA Industries, 120 Old Runway Road.
But firefighters toiled for hours in intense heat to extinguish flames in four trailers behind AAA Industries, a recycler of cardboard located at the dead end road’s terminus beside the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Five fire engines and more than 30 firefighters battled the blaze that began about 11:30 a.m.
Less than two hours later, AAA Industries owner George Copen, family members, friends and employees watched several hundred yards away, where 5-inch yellow fire hoses snaked down the road. Black smoke billowed behind the beige metal building with a brick facade front office.
Ten-year-old Elliott Copen wrapped his arm around his father’s waist.
“It’s gonna be OK, Dad,” the boy said.
George Copen said none of the company’s four employees were present when the fire began behind the 11-year-old building and burned four to five tons of cardboard and some bales of plastic.
“It’s just one of those things,” he said.
Tupelo Fire Department officials couldn’t confirm an exact source for the fire Saturday evening, though they believe it began by one of the four trailers near a rear loading dock.
Chuck Talley, a Furrs Volunteer Fire Department member, responded early at the scene and explained a possible scenario for the blaze.
Shortly before the fire began, someone dropped off cardboard boxes at the business in a yellow-and-black van that got stuck, Talley said.
A Smithey Excavation backhoe driver working on nearby property helped free the van but noticed heat from the van had ignited some of the cardboard, Talley said.
The backhoe driver issued a warning about the fire as the van driver left the scene and the fire soon burned out of control, Talley said.
“There were flames up to 100 feet at one time,” he said.
Visible for miles around Tupelo, the plume of smoke attracted sightseers along the Trace, Main Street and Air Park Road.
Tupelo police controlled access to Old Runway Road for hours.
“I thought for sure (the building) was gone awhile ago,” Tupelo police Capt. Hoyt Richey said early in the afternoon. “But they’ve held they’re ground.”
Containing the fire
Foam, fiber and box businesses lining the road near AAA Industries were spared any damage and only a small plot of Trace property burned. But containment came through considerable exertion.
“Our main objective was to keep the building from burning,” said Assistant Chief David Blackwell of the Tupelo Fire Department. Fire sprinkler heads extinguished flames that briefly entered the rear of the warehouse and firefighters ran a hose through the back of the building to prevent further flareups.
Because firefighters kept the extreme heat out of the building, sprinklers didn’t go off in the 1,500-square-foot office, where equipment and records were spared any water damage.
Firefighters also kept flames off two propane fuel tanks at the rear of the property or “we would have had … a lot more dangerous fire,” Blackwell said.
A potential forest fire on Trace property formed an additional concern.
“(But) there were some natural barriers between here and there that would have slowed things down,” Tupelo Fire Chief Mike Burns said.
The fire represented Tupelo’s first industrial fire since a fire at Mississippi Recycling on Graham Drive about two years ago, Burns said.
And Saturday’s fire marked the first time off-duty firefighters were called back since the Calvary Baptist Church fire in downtown Tupelo in 1992, he said.
Most of AAA Industries’ losses were limited to raw materials stored on the property.
“We should be back in business in a week or so,” George Copen said.
Firefighters planned to stay on the scene much of Saturday night to douse and monitor tightly-packed bales that smoldered like tinderboxes.
“We’re just flooding it, trying to put it out,” Blackwell said as a 911 car delivered free Hardee’s hamburgers to the tired firefighters.