The great butter and cheese fire of 1991

John Oncken
spectators watch as the Central Storage & Warehouse on Cottage Grove Road goes up in flames in May of 1991.

I admit that I didn't remember, but my friend Lois Seymour did, that it was the 30th anniversary of a monstrous fire that broke out on May 3, 1991, at Madison's Central Storage & Warehouse Co.. It was later proclaimed to have been Madison's biggest fire ever by fire department officials.

The fire at the huge food storage facility on Cottage Grove Road and Highway 51/151 in east Madison was later attributed to a forklift battery malfunction. The resulting blaze at the sprawling 500,000 square foot site took more than a week to extinguish because of burning insulation and some 20 million pounds of what we referred to as “government butter, cheese and meat".

The great butter fire

Madison Fire Department Chief Steven Davis had been with Madison Fire Department for just a couple years. He said the food-related catastrophe he witnessed was unlike anything he or anyone else in the department has seen since.

Davis didn’t arrive as part of the initial response, but he got there in time to see the outside walls of the building collapse and let loose a wave of melted butter that engulfed everything nearby.

“It literally was a river of butter,” he said. 

The trucks, ladders, and other equipment were all in the middle of the sweet-cream pond. Davis said there was at least 5 feet of butter collected in low spots and that the more water firefighters used, the more “gooey, stuff flowed out of the building.”

“In all my training and experience, I’d never come across anything like it. Even the old-timers had never seen anything like it,” he said.

Hip deep in cheese.

Fatty dairy moat

At one point while battling the blaze, Davis was sent to the roof of an adjacent building where he and a few others focused a hose on the fire for about eight hours. When he finally came down from the roof at 5:30 a.m. the next day, he and his team attempted to move the hose line further between the two buildings. He stepped off a loading dock onto what he thought was solid ground and instantly found himself up to his chest in melted butter.

The butter also fueled the flames, creating even more challenges.

As the outside walls of the Central Storage & Warehouse Co. collapsed, it let loose a wave of melted butter that engulfed everything nearby.  A fatty dairy moat kept the ladder trucks from getting out and the fuel trucks from getting in.

Madison fire crews were on-site for days trying to put out the fire. A fatty dairy moat kept the ladder trucks from getting out and the fuel trucks from getting in, so mechanics had to carry five-gallon buckets of diesel fuel through the butter river to ensure the trucks kept running.

MFD’s job was to put out the fire while trudging upstream through a butter flood. But it was the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource’s responsibility to make sure the butter river didn’t make it to the nearby lakes and streams.

Containing the butter

Two and a half hours after firefighters arrived on the scene, the fire had spread to a second building and a third alarm was made. Five hours later the building collapsed and the fire threatened the facility's anhydrous ammonia tanks, spurring an evacuation of approximately 3,000 residents within a half mile radius of the fire. Luckily firefighters were able to push back the fire.

According to the state DNR’s records, the fire resulted in the release of 1,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia; 5,000 tons of food products including hams, hot dogs, bakery items, and cranberries; and 12,500 tons of dairy products, mostly butter and cheese.

Archives estimate the losses at $7.5 million in property damages and $70 million in contents.

The fire at Central Storage & Warehouse in Madison progressed very rapidly, causing a collapse that sent millions of pounds of melted butter, cheese and other food products into the street.

To contain the sludge runoff, the DNR constructed multiple dams to protect Starkweather Creek, a tributary that connects to Lake Monona.

Two state DNR wardens were on site to work with crews from Madison’s city engineering and public works departments to steer the butter river into a storm water discharge (pond 1) beneath the nearby highway overpass.

According to the DNR water had to be pumped out of pond 1 and across the railroad tracks into another pond (pond 2) because the butter was flowing in faster than it could be sent into the sanitary sewer.

The fire at the Central Storage & Warehouse Co. complex, a cold storage facility consisting of five buildings totaling nearly 500,000 square feet, contained approximately 50 million pounds of food products. Firefighters who battled the blaze claim it was the biggest fire in Madison history.

By the end of May 4 more than 3 million gallons of melted butter and fire runoff had been pumped into the sanitary sewer. But on May 5, the rains came and the rising water levels threatened to send the butter flood over the last dam and into Starkweather Creek. The DNR had to quickly build another two dams before noon.

By May 6, after another 11 million gallons had been pumped into the sanitary sewer. The fire was under control but something had to be done about all the congealed butter that had accumulated in the two ponds. The DNR said the U.S. Department of Agriculture brought in salvage contractors to remove the food waste.

The following few weeks were dedicated to cleaning up: hauling huge piles of meat and rubble to the Dane County Landfill, staying ahead of rain and heat that re-melted the congealed butter, and gradually pumping butter out of ponds 1 and 2.

About two weeks after the fire broke out, the DNR said efforts to clear the spoiling meat products and keep the melted butter out of nearby waterways were a “success.”

Davis said the DNR monitored the nearby waterways and very few fish died after the fire. He called it remarkable since the butter river appeared so quickly, giving crews barely any time to assemble materials and build embankments.

The Polar Bear Sign remains.

All told the cleanup cost approximately $550,000, which was covered largely by CSW and a grant from the USDA. 

The aftermath

In their attempt to clean up all the butter MFD was forced to throw away nearly all the firefighter gear that was used. Davis said since he was still new to the job, he got stuck with steam cleaning the hoses that weren’t completely destroyed by the butter immersion.

Davis described the cumulative effect as a rotten smell, one that has lasted for “years and years” at a nearby fire station.

CSW has been rebuilt and any trace of the mighty butter river that once flowed through the area has vanished. 

The new warehouse has been rebuilt.

Note: The butter and cheese were indeed government surplus from the farmer milk payment program in effect at the time. Farmers were paid a given price, their milk was processed and the butter, cheese and other dairy products were stored and became part of giveaway programs. The Madison warehouse was but one of many such across the country used for the surplus storage.

Dairy policy has changed several times in the years since the fire but I still remember jokingly calling the fire “the dairy surplus solver.” But in those 30 years since, the dairy pricing policy discussion continued with milk production and demand still a political and dairy issue.

John Oncken may be reached at