Nearly half of structures on dock affected by fire, says witness of Port Moller fire

Aug 16, 2017

So far no reports of injuries in large fire that continues to burn at large, remote salmon processing plant on the Alaska Peninsula.  One dock was cut away, and production facilities heavily damaged according to on-the-ground reports.

Peter Pan Seafoods processing plant at Port Moller. Photo taken August 16, 2017.
Credit KDLG

August 17, 2017, update:

Details are emerging slowly on the fire at the Peter Pan Seafoods processing plant in Port Moller. The 100-year-old plant caught fire late Tuesday night, and the blaze continued to burn Wednesday. The full scope of the damage is still unclear, but witnesses say it is extensive.

“The main processing facility is located on the dock. About 40 percent of the structures on the dock were affected by the fire,” said Theo Chesley of Precision Air. He flew an aerial survey over the smoldering buildings Wednesday morning. “It looked like it could have been much worse, but the main generator systems, the cold storage, the refrigeration plant, the holding area and office all were devastated by the fire. About 60 percent of the other structures there on the dock did not burn. However, they could have been affected by the heat. It’s too early to tell.”

Limited power and water have been restored to the plant. Chesley estimated Thursday morning that there were over a hundred employees at plant employees still in Port Moller. He said that a winter generator survived the fire. It is powering the cafeteria but little beyond that.

“So basically anybody with a pulse and air taxi is trying to help these guys out right now,” said Chesley, describing the effort he and other pilots are making to fly workers out of Port Moller. “Of course the wind is blowing about 35 miles per hour and visibility is not that great, so everybody’s just trying to do what we can and help these people out because they’re in a pretty tough situation.”

Fisherman Jared Danielson fought the blaze early Wednesday morning with a group on the beach while boats tackled it from the water. They worked hard for about two hours to contain the blaze until building where the fire began collapsed.

“After it collapsed in that small area, we couldn’t get to that section that was still blazing. Basically once the wind got to it again, it just spread. We had to basically give up and let it run its course,” said Danielson.

No deaths or serious injuries have been reported, and the cause of the fire is still not clear. As of Thursday afternoon Peter Pan Seafoods had not provided comment.  However, Danielson said a representative from the company spoke to the Port Moller area over VHF radio Wednesday. Danielson also spoke with that representative personally.

“We’re going to rebuild with new state-of-the-art technology is the plan. That’s what I was told," said Danielson. "This fishery has been around a long time, so would only hope that they would do that. I’m third-generation fisherman in Port Moller. It would be devastating if they were just to let this cannery go away and never rebuild."

For this year, Danielson said that for most fishing out of Port Moller, this signals an abrupt end to the season.

The fire also poses a complication for hauling boats out of the water. A portion of the dock was cut away to contain the fire. Danielson said that some boats that planned on hauling out for the winter at Port Moller may have to go elsewhere.

August 16, 2017:

The Peter Pan Seafoods processing plant in Port Moller, which suffered heavy damage during a fire that continued to burn into Wednesday, Aug. 16.
Credit Peter Pan Seafoods

This story has been updated since Wednesday morning.

The 100-year-old Peter Pan Seafoods processing plant in Port Moller has been devastated by a massive fire that burned through the night and into Wednesday morning. So far no one has been reported injured, but power, running water, and most phone and internet connections are down in the remote community.

Chris Clemens skippers the fishing vessel Rough Rider and delivers his catch to Peter Pan’s Port Moller plant. On Tuesday night the weather came up strong, as it often does this time of the year, and Clemens and crew pulled their nets and headed in to make a delivery.

“And on our way in we saw it on fire, from the ocean side, and then we looked, we came around the corner, and the whole thing is on fire, and we pulled up as quick as we could to try and put it out," he said Wednesday morning.

Clemens recalls eight or ten other boats tying off to the section of the main dock that was burning, using their hoses to spray directly on the spreading fire. But neither those boats nor the plant workers on the dock were having any luck containing the blaze.

“We fought the fire for a couple hours … couldn’t get a handle on it. It got out of control, and everyone had to evacuate because it was dangerous, and we were worried about the roof coming down on the boats and whatnot. And that was that … now we’re out on anchor. We’re just kinda watching our livelihoods burn to the ground, it seems.”

Clemens said about a third of the fleet that fishes the area is still around for the late Bear River sockeye run, and they had been having a good tail end to the season. He’s not sure if they will find another market, or where some of the boats will be hauling out when fishing is over now.

A concern shared amongst he and his fellow fishermen Wednesday morning was that what Peter Pan bills as its "most remote facility" may be gone forever.

Peter Pan’s corporate office had not offered comment by midday Wednesday.

There are probably 150 people or less right now in Port Moller, which has little beyond this seafood plant.

According to its company website, Peter Pan claimed land at Port Moller in 1917 and began building the cannery there, which is open from May till September. Until Wednesday Peter Pan Port Moller could process about a quarter million pounds of salmon a day, primarily sockeye, shipping it out as frozen fillets or H&G.

Bob Murphy lives in Port Moller for the summer as the ADF&G fishery management biologist. He watched Peter Pan’s operations come to a devastating halt Tuesday night.

"The fire started kind of in the production end of things, kind of the freezing warehouse at Peter Pan Seafoods last night," he said shortly before 8 a.m. Wednesday. "[It] consumed most of the production facilities that we can tell."

There is no village or city or fire department in Port Moller, but Murphy said the plant workers used a fire suppression system, water lines, and hoses to battle the blaze. But these efforts proved no match for the fire fueled by old, dry timbers from the hundred year old buildings.

"[The efforts] went on for several hours before it just got so intense. And now you’re down to where there’s fuel and there’s ammonia tanks and lines, and gets to the point where it starts being very dangerous to be around, and there was no way to keep fighting it," said Murphy.

On Wednesday morning, Peter Pan crews cut the dock away from the shore to contain the fire, and it appears the remaining warehouses and bunkhouses on shore were spared damage.

Murphy turned on a generator to get basic service back for the Fish and Game office, but said otherwise there was no power, phones, or internet working in Port Moller.

In lieu of photos, which may take a while to trickle out to the world, skipper Chris Clemens offered a perspective of what he was looking at as they sat on anchor near the dock.

"It looks like a skeleton of a building, and it’s smoking. There’s a tender tied up to it, a large Bering Sea crabber. And guys are still tying up their small boats, trying to fight the fire. But I think it’s reached its last point, I don’t think it’s going to get any worse," he said.

Clemens suspects the fishing season for most there will be over, because even if they find another buyer, Peter Pan has always taken care of all of their support services in this remote fishery.

Murphy said he will continue to publish catch and escapement numbers and manage the Area M North Peninsula fisheries, including at Bear River, regardless of whether or not any of the fleet can continue to fish.

"I have no idea what's going to happen, but they will not be processing fish at the Port Moller plant, that's for sure," he said.

Reach the author at news@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.

A screen grab from the PPSF website explaining the facility.
Credit PPSF