Freeport Fire Chief Reflects on Mill Fire Anniversary

Created: 12/28/2012 2:46 PM KSTP.com By: Cassie Hart

On Dec. 27, 2011, Freeport Fire Chief Noah Van Beck was a witness to a local tragedy - the total loss of Swany White Flour Mill, the last remaining working flour mill in the state and a distinct historical landmark for the town of a little more than 600 people.

About a year later, Van Beck reflected on what many called a tragedy.

The fire started in the mill's third floor and was discovered at 4:30 p.m. By 6:30 p.m., the building collapsed, opening a gaping space in the town's familiar skyline. No one was injured.

Van Beck arrived on the second truck.

Fire shot out of third-floor windows and through the roof. Firefighters quickly went to work, knowing that the business was owned by one of their own, retired firefighter Gary Thelen. It had been in his family since 1903.

"It was devastating," Van Beck said soon after the fire. "Your heart sinks for the family."

The full impact of the situation didn't really hit him until later.

"I didn't think about it until the next day. ... I didn't have time to think or react," he said, until they were back at the fire hall for a debriefing.

"Everybody just sat there - 'What just happened?' " he said.

Van Beck said the rumor around town was that within 20 minutes after the fire call, all the Swany White flour in town was gone - a sign of the historic loss felt far beyond Freeport.

The Swany White building was full of flour dust and the more than 100-year-old structure was made out of wood, so the flames traveled fast.

The firefighters couldn't do much for the structure itself, Van Beck said. Their attention was on protecting the structures around the mill, such as a home, businesses and nearby grain bins.

The wind was from the northwest, he said, blowing smoke onto the nearby Interstate Highway 94.

Firefighters from six departments battled the flames - the largest fire Van Beck says he's ever seen.

A fire he saw at the Kraft plant in Melrose about 20 years ago is the only one that could compare.

Albany and Melrose were called to the Swany White scene before Van Beck even got there.

"I knew we needed manpower," he told the St. Cloud Times.

Eventually St. Martin, Sauk Centre and Avon also would respond to the fire call. The later arrivals were called in because the department worried about running out of water, which has happened in the past, especially if the water tower is low, Van Beck said.

The department had done training there in the past and also has plans for other major structures in the city, such as churches and schools.

Fire departments routinely train together and respond to calls together. Albany Fire Chief Dean Mitchell said soon after the fire that experience means the area departments know each other and know what their capabilities are.

The worry on the cold day they fought the fire was ice: Would lines freeze up? Would people be slipping all over the ice and snow?

Photos of the aftermath show the ice that formed from the water the departments pumped onto the fire.

Freezing temperatures are just something any fire department in Minnesota faces.

The historic nature of the mill meant media from all over the state were calling all through the night.

"I finally just turned off my phone," Van Beck said, so he could get some rest.

The next day, he went into town to do some interviews with the media. By 24 hours later, it had calmed down.

"I was more worried about the (Thelen) family," he said. "The media was crazy."

"(Thelen) worked there his whole life," he said.

Now, on the wall of the fire hall hangs a photo by Albany photographer Jack Evens from the night of the fire. He used a process called high dynamic range imaging, which gives a great range between light and dark colors, providing more details in the shadow. It leaves the orange of the flames and red of the trucks strikingly bright.

The cause of the fire was never determined and it resulted in $850,000 in damage, according to the State Fire Marshal's report.

The mill produced 750,000 pounds of flour a year, products that were sought after by co-ops, bakers and cooks who espouse the local food movement. Thelen did rebuild and is currently selling inventory again.

While the mill was a high-profile tragedy in the small community, Van Beck knows that any call can be a potential personal tragedy.

"It can change their life," he said. "It's emotionally hard."

"It's also very rewarding if you can help," he said. "If you can save a house or save animals. You focus on the good points. You have to."

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)