Fayette County

Cause of Lexington stockyards fire still under investigation; fire officials warn nearby residents of poor air quality near site

The cause of a Saturday fire that destroyed or damages five businesses including the Bluegrass Stockyards remained under investigation Sunday as fire crews continued working on the site of one largest fires in Lexington’s history.

“The investigation is still ongoing, there are a number of people who need to be interviewed. We want to be thorough,” said Lexington Battalion Chief Joe Best.

Lexington fire officials also warned residents with chronic respiratory problems near the site of the fire on Lisle Industrial Avenue and South Forbes Road to remain indoors. Air quality monitoring on Sunday showed slightly elevated levels of fine solids, which can cause problems for people with emphysema or a history of pneumonia.

Lexington Interim Fire Chief Harold Hoskins said Sunday fire crews anticipate being on the site for several more days. Air quality testing will also continue, fire officials said.

“These levels are what we would expect to find after a fire this size,” said Hoskins. “When the wind picks up, we get an increase in the amount of smoke being generated. We want people with breathing problems to take extra precautions as work to put the rest of the fires out.”

The fire department also asked all people to remain out of the area around South Forbes. On Sunday, fire crews continued to monitor the site, spraying water on still-smoking debris.

In addition to the Bluegrass Stockyards, other nearby 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, fire officials said.

The cost of the damage caused by the fire remains unknown, but it’s likely it will be several million dollars, fire officials said. That’s in property damage alone. The total loss in jobs and business will be more.

Dewayne Hogan, the owner of Slim’s Towing, lost six of his eight tow trucks, two buildings and 100 vehicles in the fire. But Hogan said he’s lucky. His two mechanics saw the smoke coming from the stockyards shortly after the fire started and warned Hogan, who was inside his office.

The stockyards are across Lisle Industrial Avenue from Slim’s. Hogan thought his business would be safe.

“In five, six or seven minutes, I am not exaggerating, it had crossed the street,” Hogan said. “I have never seen anything like that. It was so fast. … It was orange and red. It looked like whatever hell looks like.”

Hogan and his two mechanics tried to move the tow trucks but realized quickly that the fire was moving too fast. Fortunately, two tow trucks were on runs in Louisville and northern Kentucky.

Metro and Bluegrass Towing have already contacted Hogan and have offered either temporary space or additional tow trucks to help Hogan, who has been in business for nine years, get back in business.

Bluegrass Stockyards, which was marking its 70th year in Lexington and is an institution in the state’s agricultural industry, suffered a total loss. Jim Akers, CEO of Bluegrass, said Sunday the company was moving its scheduled sales for Lexington to its other locations. Akers said they were already accepting cattle at its Mount Sterling and Stanford locations on Sunday. Sales will take place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Mount Sterling and Stanford on Monday and Thursday.

Akers said the company’s future plans remain fluid. It employs 55 people, none of whom were injured in the Saturday fire. In 2015, at the Lexington location alone, Bluegrass Stockyards sold more than 100,000 head of cattle with a value of $120 million.

“It’s a temporary sales schedule just for this coming week,” Akers said. “We are working on a sustainable sales schedule for the following week.”

Contractors were working on the roof of the stockyards at the time of the fire. Hogan said the stockyards’ main building actually has two roofs on top of each other. The first roof likely kept the fire inside the building for some time, he said. But when the fire escaped, it was very, very hot. To boot, the wind was blowing, making it difficult for firefighters to contain the blaze, Hogan said.

“They did a hell of a job,” Hogan said.

More than 120 firefighters battled the blaze that began around 2 p.m. and was contained by 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

One bright spot —an historic two-story stone building built by one of Lexington’s founding fathers was untouched by the fire. The home, built by William McConnell in 1780, has been used by the Bluegrass Stockyards as an office. That house and brother James McConnell’s home on Manchester Street have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984, said Betty Kerr, the city’s historic preservation director.

“There was a utility pole that was right next to it that caught fire,” Best said. “And buildings that were much farther away were destroyed. The chances that that building is still standing — it didn’t even get a spark on it — is miraculous.”

Kerr went to the site late Saturday after the fire was contained. Everything around the stone building had been destroyed, Kerr said.

“It’s just amazing that building survived,” Kerr said.

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall

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