Fire at cheese factory near Blenheim causes major damage

A major fire which gutted a cheese factory at Tua Marina near Blenheim early today has left the future of the 45 staff in doubt.

Described as a "sad day" for Tua Marina, the fire completely gutted the factory, which has been a Marlborough landmark since 1895.

Fire crews from Blenheim, Renwick and Picton were called to the blaze while a command team came from Nelson.

Blenheim chief fire officer Gary Price said the difficulty of getting water to the factory made the job difficult.

Firefighters had to wait while portable pumps were set up to bring water from the Tua Marina stream and across State Highway 1.

Mr Price said the fire was confined to the main cheese hall after crews had prevented the blaze from spreading to the back of the building, where flammable chemicals were stored.

Mr Price said it was too early to say what the cause of the fire was -- fire safety officers were starting their investigations this morning -- but the blaze was not being treated as suspicious.

Fonterra Ingredients acting director of operations Ross McCowan said it was not known when the plant might reopen, but all milk that would have gone to the plant could be processed elsewhere.

"We have processing ability elsewhere in the South Island which we can use," he said.

"We're working through how we might transport the milk."

At the peak of the season the Tua Marina plant processed 330,000 litres of milk a day from the Marlborough region, manufacturing mostly cheese with some cream products, Mr McCowan said.

Insurance assessors were investigating the extent of damage and the cause of the fire today.

It was too early to say how much damage had been done but it was "obviously millions".

The plant had been closed for the low season, although some maintenance would have been under way, he said.

No staff had been in the plant at the time of the fire.

Resident Bob Harris was woken by his son shouting that there was a fire across the road at the factory.

"The boy woke me about three and said the cheese factory was on fire. I said sure and turned over and went back to sleep but then the explosion went off.

"I jumped out of bed and called the fire brigade."

He said he ran outside to see flames licking around the tower in the middle of the building.

"It took off really quick. There is a lot of people who are going to suffer from this. This is another piece of history gone. I have been here for 30 years and watched it change and grow. It is a very sad day."

The heat of the fire was so intense Phil Holland said he could feel it standing at his door on the other side of SH1.

"There were six metre high flames above the building."

Traffic on SH1 and the nearby railway line were halted at the height of the fire.

Marlborough Lines operation manager Brian Tapp said power from the transformer supplying the factory was switched off soon after the fire started.

Factory workers watching the building they knew so well burn to the ground, were this morning coming to the realisation their future at the plant was in doubt.

"It is a bit of a shock all right. It hasn't really sunk in yet. We were due to start the season next week," said Greg Gill, who worked at the factory for nine years.

Fellow worker Terry Watkins said many of the workers had been at the factory for more than 30 years, most straight from school.

"A lot of the guys have been here 20 to 40 years One guy has been here for more than 40 years. This is a sad way to make the headlines that's for sure," Mr Watkins said.

- NZPA

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