TURLOCK — Demolition has begun on the former cheese plant that was gutted by a fire last month.
Monday, a large excavator began cleaning up the rubble left behind when a Feb. 19 fire tore through the 59,000-square-foot vacant Lactalis USA building on West Main Street. Authorities say the fire was started when three homeless women tried to kill a man they'd had an argument with earlier by setting the structure on fire. The women have been arrested and face charges of arson and attempted murder.
"We're very pleased with the progress they've been able to make," Turlock Fire Chief Tim Lohman said of the demolition effort. "We were concerned about safety, and (the building's owners) responded well to that."
The owners are paying all costs for the demolition and cleanup. The loss initially was estimated at $5 million.
Leas Demolition, a Denair firm, is handling the project, which is expected to take three to four weeks. Lohman said crews hope to recycle a large portion of the metal and materials from the building, making the process slower.
The structure will be cleared down to its concrete foundation. Lohman said the city has not heard about any plans for the site.
He said that despite the temporary fencing placed around the site after the fire, transients were getting into what was left of the building, posing safety hazards.
The plant has been empty since 2007, when Lactalis closed its doors, letting go of all its 94 employees. The company used to produce brie and other specialty cheeses.
On Feb. 22, Lanette Sullivan, 46, Wanda White, 45, and Erika Clardy, 24, pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and arson after being accused of setting the blaze. Turlock police said the man and one of the women got into a verbal argument that escalated into a fight. When the man tried to escape by climbing into the rafters, police said, the women set the fire.
Bail has been set at $1.8 million each for Sullivan and Clardy and $1.81 million for White. They remain in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail.
It took 29 firefighters from Turlock City, as well as Ceres and Modesto agencies, several hours to extinguish the fire, using 900,000 gallons of water in the effort. They were able to keep the blaze from damaging the Evergreen packaging company next door.
Turlock has seen its share of fires in abandoned buildings. Fires were started in 1998 and 1999 in the old vacant Emanuel Hospital on Canal Drive. In 2001, the city tore down the structure, which was condemned in 1991.