Carleton County community reeling after fire destroys iconic business

by | Mar 2, 2024

Blaze levels Covered Bridge Potato Chip Factory in Hartland

Residents and officials of the small New Brunswick hamlet of Hartland are reeling Saturday morning, March 2, after a Friday evening fire levelled the locally owned potato chip plant, which bore the name of the town’s iconic landmark.

The fire began just before 6 p.m., Friday, March 1, and raced through the Covered Bridge Potato Chips plant, leaving little more than a large pile of rubble and devastation in its wake.

Hartland Fire Department Deputy Chief Tom Reid said his department used mutual aid and equipment from nine area fire departments to battle the stubborn blaze.

The replica of Hartland’s famous World Longest Covered Bridge, which carried visitors from the neighbouring businesses to the plant, remains intact. (Jim Dumville photo)

Reid said his first crews arrived on the scene to see smoke coming out the building’s doors. He said all the workers who had just begun the day’s second shift safely evacuated the building and turned off the large propane tanks.

Reid said they received word en route to the fire on Albright Court in Waterville that everyone was safely out of the building and turned off the propane valves.

Reid said firefighters entered the building to discover a fire burning in the attic.

“After a while it came through the roof,” he said. “That’s when we had to move trucks and everything.”

With the blaze fully involved, firefighters were limited to an exterior attack, using the ladder truck for an aerial attack.

Reid explained most of the mutual aid featured tankers continuously hauling water.

“We need a lot of water to feed that aerial,” he said. “We put out close to 3,000 gallons per minute.”

Once the roof collapsed, Reid said the team continued to pour thousands of gallons of water into the structure.

“There’s no way it could have been saved,” he said.

Reid said the grease and oil in the chip plant helped fuel the blaze.

“She went up fast, with a lot of black smoke,” he said.

Twisted metal demonstrates the heat of the fast-moving fire. (Jim Dumville photo)

Reid said the firefighters benefitted from the wind direction, which pushed the smoke and heat away from the propane tanks and the neighbouring businesses.

He explained that they evacuated employees from the Irving gas bar, Burger King and Subway next door and took precautions surrounding the gas and propane tanks for safety reasons.

The chip plant sits on Albright Court, a short dead-end street parallel to Route 2, the Trans Canada Highway, at the exit to Hartland in Waterville.

Following the fire, Environment Canada issued an air-quality statement warning of potentially elevated pollution levels in Waterville and areas northeast of Carleton County.

The statement, issued around 9 p.m. Friday, explained the fire may cause significant concentrations of potentially toxic smoke and pollutants to spread downwind of the plant to the northeast.

Small amounts of smoke drifted from the rubble Saturday morning as Reid and other Hartland Fire Department members waited for investigators’ arrival from the Fire Marshal’s Office.

He explained the Fire Marshal would try to determine the cause of the fire and instruct his department on its next steps regarding hot spots and cleanup.

Reid expressed confidence the owners will rebuild the vibrant chip plant, which he estimated employs more than 100 people. He said the chips are marketed worldwide. He remembered seeing the brand on shelves during his visit to Florida.

Covered Bridge Potato Chips is the outgrowth of the multi-generation Albright family potato farm. The company began in 2004 as a potato distribution operation by Matt and Ryan Albright and became the Covered Bridge Potato Chips operation in 2009.

The plant is not only a significant contributor to Hartland’s production and industrial sector, it serves as a popular tourist destination for the region.

It offers regular tourist and school tours of the chip production facility. The Albright family are also active members of the Carleton County community.

Small columns of smoke rise for the ash and debris on Saturday. (Jim Dumville photo)

The River Valley Sun could not reach Hartland Mayor Tracey DeMerchant for comment on Saturday.

In an interview with the CBC on Friday evening, DeMerchant noted the potato chip operation’s importance to the town and the region.

It’s just heartbreaking to think that the Albright family is going through this. I’m just shocked,” she told the CBC. “I can see it from my home like a lot of people in the area, and it’s overwhelming.”

She said the town will support the business in any way it can.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs issued a statement Saturday afternoon on behalf of himself and Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries Minister Margaret Johnson, who is MLA for Hartland’s neighbouring riding of Carleton-Victoria, and Greg Turner, the minister responsible for Opportunities New Brunswick.

“Our thoughts are with the employees, their families and members of the surrounding communities who will be affected by this heartbreaking loss,” Higgs stated. “This is a major employer in the region and a devastating loss for the company’s owners, their employees, and families.”

He described Covered Bridge as “a tremendous presence in the community and has helped to boost the local economy as a growing business and a tourism draw.”

Higgs said the government is working with the company and will provide whatever assistance is available.

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