About 4 percent of the nation's total hop yield was lost to fire Monday, as 2 million pounds of the pungent beer-making crop smoldered in...

Share story

About 4 percent of the nation’s total hop yield was lost to fire Monday, as 2 million pounds of the pungent beer-making crop smoldered in a Yakima warehouse.

The fire began just before noon in a Division Street warehouse leased by S.S. Steiner Inc., filling the sky with smoke. It was under control by Monday evening, allowing cleanup crews to start hauling away the damaged hops.

“This will affect the U.S. market particularly because in some of the varieties, there was a feeling we were already a little short this year,” said Ann George, the administrator for the Washington Hop Commission.

Representatives of the Steiner company declined to comment.

The hops, packed in 10,000 bales weighing about 200 pounds each, were probably worth between $1.75 and $2 per pound, based on average prices this year, George said. That puts the fire’s monetary damage between $3.5 million and $4 million. Depending on the varieties, the hops’ value could be even higher, she said.

Mike Riel, deputy chief of the East Valley Fire Department, said there was a mix of varieties in the warehouse. He did not know Monday what ignited the fire but said it could have been spontaneous combustion.

“That’s just a possibility that we’ll look at,” he said. “But it is very high on the list.”

Spontaneous combustion has been blamed for several local hop fires over the years, including one in September 1999 that burned 6,500 bales at the John I. Haas warehouse in Yakima.

“Hops, like any baled crops — hay or anything else — if not at the proper moisture level, do have the potential for self-heating,” George said.

Hop merchants in the Yakima Valley are “extremely aware” of that and generally are very careful about checking hops before allowing them into their warehouses, she said. About 75 percent of the nation’s hops are produced in the Yakima Valley.

“We’ve had drills on this,” said Tom Redfield, a warehouse manager for nearby Hopunion, as he watched crews fight the fire.

The Steiner company is known to have employees prod bales multiple times to check for moisture before taking bales, George said.

S.S. Steiner is a hop-growing, -processing and -trading firm based in New York, with facilities all over the world.

The warehouse was destroyed, Riel said. Fire crews ripped away the building’s metal siding so they could shoot water directly onto the hops.

Fire crews from East Valley, West Valley, Union Gap, the Yakima Training Center, Yakima County, the city of Yakima, Gleed, Selah and Union Gap helped fight the fire. They were able to protect surrounding buildings, Riel said.

“Once they got enough apparatus here, they made quick work of it,” he said.

A fire at the Savoy Apartments in downtown Yakima about 2 p.m. gave fire crews at the warehouse cause for concern. But firefighters kept that blaze to just one apartment, allowing resources to remain focused at the warehouse.

By late afternoon, the warehouse was reduced to a few steel beams and a roof. The cleanup likely will take several days, Riel said.

No one was in the warehouse when the fire started, he said. Two workers had left about two hours earlier, he said.

The blaze grew quickly once it got started.

“This thing broke through the roof,” Riel said. “Lots of black smoke.”

That smoke likely will not pose any serious risks for healthy people, he said. It will be an irritant to people nearby, but that’s about it, he said.

It was announced late Monday that the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will lead an investigation into the cause of the fire.

As for the hop industry, the fallout from the fire remains to be seen. Depending on the varieties involved in the fire, there could be sudden increases in demand for certain hops, George said. Though most of this year’s crop has been contracted for already, the fire could lead to increased prices next year, she said.

Hop-industry officials will continue to research ways to avoid fires, she said. That means finding better ways to get hops harvested, processed and stored at the right moisture levels all within about a 45-day period each fall, she said.

“You always hate to say it’s an inevitable fact of life,” George said. “We could probably do it perfectly if we had six months to do it.”

Reporters Chris Bristol and Mai Hoang contributed to this report.