Huge industrial fire at former Salem China factory burns into the night

SALEM, Ohio (WYTV) – Investigators with the Fire Marshal’s Office are expected to be in Salem Wednesday to look into a fire that destroyed the old Salem China Company building.

The fire broke out about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and burned into the night. Smoke and smoldering embers were still burning Wednesday morning.

Firefighters are still on the scene and will likely remain there for a while.

The first thing many noticed Tuesday was the huge billows of thick, black smoke. The sky was clear and cloudless so the smoke was easy to see. In fact, people in Poland — 20 miles away — say they saw it, too.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency was also called to the fire. It will be working with the Salem Fire Department and monitoring the water runoff from the fire to make sure it does not have an impact on any streams. The EPA will also be checking the air quality, which is standard procedure for an industrial fire.

People gathered around the area to watch the biggest fire Salem has seen in years. Bob Merry owns a nearby business.

“I closed at 3:30 and came out and saw all the smoke. Came up to the top of the hill and the fire department was just coming in,” he said.

“As the fire burned, you could hear the buildings collapsing and the walls coming down,” Jim Ulman said.

Ulman is a photographer who couldn’t resist the opportunity for what turned out to be many good pictures.

“I was taking a picture of a barn in the sunset south of Alliance when I saw the smoke. You could tell something big was going on,” he said.

Salem Fire Chief Scott Mason said they had a tough time getting to the fire. He said some of the firefighters actually went inside the building but weren’t in there for long.

“The building started to collapse so we backed up and did just a defensive attack.”

Nearby railroad tracks and the fact that the building was several hundred yards off a main road added to the access and water issues.

The building is now owned by the Church Budget Envelope Company so rolls of paper were among the items burning. As night fell, pieces of burning paper could be seen blowing in the air. A lot of it became ash and floated over much of Salem.

A house on 11th Street, just north of Salem High School, is about two miles from the fire. Homeowner Gisela Hiltbrand said she could see the ash on her front porch and in her yard.

“When I came out, you could see it flying in the air and then I looked at the porch, and it was all over,” she said. “I just thought, ‘From where I’m at, it really blew. You know? That’s a good distance.”

At the height of the fire, around 5 or 5:30 p.m., she said it looked like it was snowing.

Hiltbrand said she could also smell the smoke.

But what caused all of that black smoke?

“I know there was some machinery on the far side. It might have been the tires from the machinery,” Mason said. “I believe there was some old farm machinery in there so it could have been the tires from the farm machinery.”

Ten departments showed up to help fight the fire.

A ladder truck from Canfield was set up on the north side of the fire to hose down houses and a wooded area. There were a couple brush fires and the roof of a nearby building briefly caught fire.

“I believe it was the Quaker City Castings Training Facility,” Mason said, though damage was minimal.

No one was evacuated from the area and no one was hurt.

Chief Mason has no idea how the fire started and given the extent of it, said he probably never will.

There was another fire at the Salem China Company on July 23, 2003. One of the buildings was destroyed.

Salem China opened in 1898 but stopped making china at the Salem building in 1967. It used the building for sales and service until 1999.

At the time of the 2003 fire, the building was also owned by Church Budget Envelope.