An early morning fire at a Bunn, N.C., warehouse dealt a blow to a Franklin County farmer. Multiple fire departments, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, EMS and Emergency Services responded. The decision was later made to allow the fire to continue due to safety concerns.

No one was injured in the fire.

The Montclair Complex on NC-98 E caught fire the morning of January 11, 2019. Only one of the three complex buildings was affected, its large warehouse was used to store bales of kenaf, a plant used for its fiber. Kenaf, known by its scientific name as Hibiscus cannabinus L, is stored and dried on the property, along with industrial hemp.

The building containing the drying hemp was not involved in the fire. However, farmer Elmer “Mann” Mullen says he also lost half a million dollars in hemp plants in his indoor grow room when the building was destroyed.

The Mullen family owns multiple adjacent parcels totaling more than 80 acres, though Mann Mullen is licensed with the N.C. Industrial Hemp Pilot Program to grow on 160 acres. That same registration indicates he intended to grow 5,250 plants indoors.

Undeterred, Mullen says, “We’re going to keep scraping by” and that he’s not ready to give up hemp farming yet.

Blake Butler, executive director of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Association, says, “I hate to see this happen to anyone.”

Butler is hopeful that the 2018 farm bill’s passage will soon lead to crop insurance becoming available for hemp farmers now that it is officially considered a legal commodity by the federal government.

“I just don’t know how long that will take,” Butler says.

[Read: Will the 2018 farm bill help with hemp banking issues?]

Multiple fire departments responded to the blaze. These included Bunn Rural Fire Department and fire crews and equipment from Pilot, Louisburg, Ferrells, Justice, Wake Forest and several others.

When asked what people can do to help, Mullen said, “Pray for me.”

[Images courtesy of journalist Kay Whatley, editor of The Grey Area News.]


See more drone and heat-map imagery from the fire in an update on The Grey Area News’ website.

Image above: Drone rainbow thermal shot of Bunn, N.c., warehouse fire. Credit: Pilot Steve Rhode, Wake Forest Fire Department.

Drones were piloted over the scene, first by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office’s pilot, then another drone was brought in by a Wake Forest Fire Department pilot. Video and photographs, along with thermal imagery, allowed the fire departments to better pinpoint what was going on inside the warehouse.

By 2 p.m., part of the warehouse roof had collapsed, andflames were visible through three sides and ash was raining down.

A Franklin County Emergency Services worker, though stationed away from the fire near the Montclair Complex gate, had ash covering his shoulders and hair.

At several points in the afternoon, fire crews sprayed water into the warehouse or on nearby equipment.

From the Bunn Food Lion plaza to Sledge Road, NC-98 Hwy East was closed. The Franklin County Sheriff’s deputies directed traffic, closing the road through the afternoon. Bunn schools advised parents in-advance that buses might experience delays, likely due to the closures and emergency vehicle traffic.

Bunn Rural Fire Department is expected to continue as lead FD on the scene, with the warehouse estimated to burn for at least two more days. Procedures may include fire crews posted at Montclair Complex for the next few days and nights.

The impact of the fire on farmer Mullen — who owned the kenaf and hemp in the Montclair Complex warehouses — is significant.

Speaking with Mullen, he confirmed his farm did not have crop insurance. Insurance has been an issue for farmers who cultivate industrial hemp, due to previous federal restrictions.

Mullen confirmed first responder reports that no one was hurt in the warehouse. He also confirmed that the building is expected to be a total loss. Asked how much of a loss it is, he said, “I don’t know at this point. It’s in the millions.”

When asked what people can do to help, he said, “Pray for me.”

According to North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS), Mullen was growing several strains of hemp — Carolina Girl 2, Cherry, Carolina Girl 3 and Baox.

Hemp and kenaf are both grown for their fiber. A former tobacco farm, Mullen’s farm operates under the name Big M Tobacco LLC.

Records provided by the NCDA&SC show the farm may have grown as many as 5,250 plants in 2018.

The cause of the fire is not known at this point.

The Franklin County Fire Marshall did not immediately return a request for additional information.

An early report on the fire, by WNCT 9, included multiple inaccuracies, including that the farm building was owned by Hemp Inc., (HEMP), which is a publicly traded company. According to Franklin County records, it is not. A call to Hemp Inc. was not immediately returned.

Kay Whatley

Kay Whatley

Special Coorespondent

Kay Whatley is the editor of The Grey Area News — “Local and national unusual news for eastern North Carolina, the U.S. and beyond.” She is pictured here with her family — including her late husband Frank, the founder of The Grey Area News — on a stone monument to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

[Rhiannon Fionn, the publisher of Carolina Cannabis News, contributed to the reporting for this story.]