LEXINGTON, Ky. – A massive fire destroyed a 70-year-old beef cattle auction business in Lexington on Saturday, churning up a plume of thick, black smoke that darkened the skies for miles as the wind-whipped flames consumed several nearby businesses.
No one was injured in the fire that destroyed seven acres of the stockyards operated by the Blue Grass Livestock Marketing Group. But Chief Operating Officer Jim Akers said he did not see how the 20 beef cattle in the facility could have survived.
Firefighters were alerted to the fire at 2:20 p.m. and quickly called for backup as the smoke billowed through the streets near busy Leestown Road. Fire officials warned anyone living within a half mile of the fire to stay inside and turn off their heating and air conditioning units to keep the smoke out of their homes.
At least 120 firefighters battled the blaze for several hours Saturday afternoon in a wooden structure that Interim Fire Chief Harold Hoskins compared to "a standing lumber yard."
"It's just a lot of wood, a lot of combustibles. Its' been here forever, so it's dried out and it's ready to burn," Hoskins said. "The wind is what caused it to cross the street."
Hoskins said several businesses were destroyed over one city block, including several vehicles parked at a towing company that exploded during the worst of the blaze.
"Flames were everywhere," said Steven Parrot, who lives nearby and was walking down Leestown Road with his shirt pulled over his nose to shield him from the smoke. "It was big even before the firefighters got there."
Hoskins said he does not know how the fire started. He said investigators were interviewing witnesses to figure out what happened. Akers said about six employees were working at the stockyards when an employee driving a Bobcat first noticed the smoke. He said the company would continue operations at its other locations in Mount Sterling and Stanford, but he did not know if the Lexington site would be rebuilt.
"I'd like for the smoke to clear at least to see what the situation is," he said.
Hoskins said it was the largest fire he has seen in his 33 years with the fire department. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray called it a significant loss for the city.
"It's been an historic member of our community for a very long time," Gray said.
Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said later that it was a "sad day" for Kentucky's agricultural community following the loss of what he called one of the leading cattle sales sites in the eastern U.S.
"A historic piece of Kentucky agriculture has been lost, but we are thankful to hear that all stockyard employees escaped the blaze without injury," Quarles said in a statement, pledging government assistance to help the business surmount the loss and continue its operations.