A massive fire at the Bluegrass Stockyards on Lisle Industrial Avenue produced huge clouds of smoke over downtown Lexington on Saturday, destroying the stockyards and several nearby businesses.
More than 120 firefighters battled the blaze after it broke out around 2:20 p.m., and a stockyards official said the facility was a total loss.
Neighboring businesses known to have been damaged or destroyed included Johnson Landscaping Materials, 167 South Forbes Road; Viking Wholesale, 154 South Forbes Road; Leak Eliminators, 1064 Manchester Street; and Slim’s Towing, 336 Lisle Industrial Ave., where many cars burned, interim Fire Chief Harold Hoskins said.
At one point, the fire department asked people who live within a half-mile of the stockyards to stay in their homes with their air conditioners turned off.
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Later, the Red Cross opened a shelter at Cardinal Valley Elementary School for anyone who wanted to get upwind of the smoke. The Salvation Army and Red Cross both had trucks at the scene providing assistance, including food and water for tired firefighters.
The fire was a three-alarm blaze, city spokeswoman Susan Straub said. At one point, wind blew the fire across Liggett Steet, and fire crews fought to keep the blaze from spreading to other buildings.
The fire department and Mayor Jim Gray reported that the fire had been brought under control around 5:30 p.m., though Hoskins said firefighters would be putting water on the rubble to put out hot spots for at least another 24 hours.
Hoskins asked that nearby business owners check in with their employees to make sure everyone was accounted for. He said the investigation into the cause of the blaze was just beginning.
Any witnesses with information about the fire and business owners in the immediate area were asked to call 231-5600.
Jim Akers, the stockyards’ chief operating officer, said the cavernous, 7-acre main building “is a total loss. It’s gone.” One of the stockyards’ two office buildings sustained water damage as firefighters saved it.
Twenty cattle inside the main building died, Akers said. No people were reported injured.
Scott Bucher and Gene Barber, two of the owners of the company who watched firefighters work to control the fire, said that if it had to happen, a Saturday afternoon was probably the best time, because there were fewer animals there then.
A day later and there might have been 1,200 animals inside, Barber said.
Overall, 55 people work at the stockyards, Akers said.
“We had a skeleton crew of maintenance workers there at the time, just six of them, and all of our employees are accounted for and fine. Everyone got out,” Akers said.
The 10-acre stockyards property has an assessed value of $1.6 million. Akers said he did not know if the stockyards would rebuild.
“Lot of hard decisions to make,” Akers said. “Obviously, rebuilding on this site is one option.”
Bucher said the Lexington stockyards held “a lot of memories.”
“Gene’s been here all his life. I’ve been here all my life,” he said.
Farmers who typically bring in their cattle over the weekend for Monday and Tuesday sales were asked to use the stockyards’ Mount Sterling location instead, Akers said.
The company has six other locations besides Lexington, Bucher said.
Hoskins, the fire chief, described the fire as the largest he had seen in his 33 years with the fire department. He said he had received reports that the smoke was visible from as far away as Louisville.
The stockyards were like “a standing lumberyard,” he said. While there have been fires at the stockyards before, wind caused Saturday’s fire to spread so quickly to an area about the equivalent of a city block, he said.
He said firefighters came in with a plan for containing the fire and were able to protect some nearby buildings, including a historic stone house that is used for offices at the stockyards.
“They know this block. They knew what the potential was,” Hoskins said. “They knew this was going to be a significant event.”
Gray said the loss of the stockyards is significant to Lexington, noting that the business was celebrating its 70th year at the site.
Russell Hillard of Bailey Tree Service said he was working on a truck at the tree service, 390 Lisle Industrial Ave. across the street from the stockyards, when the fire broke out.
He said employees of neighboring businesses escaped the fire by crawling under a chain-link fence on South Forbes.
“It was amazing how fast this happened,” he said. “Within 10 minutes there were three different buildings on fire.”
Hillard said a new roof was being put on at the stockyard when the fire broke out.
People near the scene described the huge plume and the sound of explosions.
“So surreal,” said Rebecca Burnworth, who had stopped at Crank & Boom to get ice cream with her children. “We came outside to see a big plume of black smoke. I did a double take. Then explosions after that. Sounded like the structure imploding.”
Hoskins said those explosions were likely blasts from gas tanks on vehicles stored at the nearby towing business.
The fire department posted a video.