Spencer Tulis / Finger Lakes Times

Firefighters worked to stop the blaze at Cornell's Geneva campus late Saturday evening.

April 7, 2019

Fire Damages Greenhouse, Adjacent Building at Cornell AgriTech Campus in Geneva

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This post has been updated.

A fire broke out at Cornell’s Geneva AgriTech campus Saturday evening, damaging a greenhouse, the headhouse and the adjacent building. The campus was reopened Sunday morning, although the burnt buildings were taped off.

“There was considerable damage to the building, but no one was injured,” Director of Cornell AgriTech Jan Nyrop said in a statement Saturday night.

A video of the fire recorded by Code 35 Fire Photography showed thick, gray smoke surrounding flames adjacent to a greenhouse around 7 p.m. on Saturday. The fire spread throughout the building, the greenhouse and the headhouse.

The cause of the fire remains unknown.

Erin Flynn, manager of marketing and communications at Cornell AgriTech, told The Sun that because the damaged building was owned by the United State Department of Agriculture, the investigation would be carried out by federal authorities. According to Flynn, only USDA staff worked in the building, not Cornell employees.

Flynn said she went to the site Sunday afternoon around 3 p.m. and was told by the State Fire unit that the ATF would be conducting the investigation.

“He said the ATF was supposed to investigate. He had no idea what time they were supposed to come,” Flynn said.  “Our facilities people have been there, they’ve done their part. It’s not totally our building so we don’t have the access to information.”

Though the building is federally managed, Flynn said that Cornell would be offering support.

“I do know that we will be closely involved,” Flynn said. “We value our colleagues there we work very closely in terms of research, very, very closely in terms of the apple industry and vegetables and obviously, grapes. We do want to know what’s going on just as much as everybody else.”

“Everybody knows about the 68.9 grant for the new grape research facility,” Flynn said, referring to the $68.9 million in USDA Agricultural Research Service funding granted to build a new federal grape genetics research lab at the AgriTech campus, The Sun reported.

“But that is just supposed to be for grape research, that doesn’t encompass what the rest of the building housed, which would be vegetable and tree fruit research,” Flynn said.

The USDA-owned buildings, according to the Cornell AgriTech map, house the Plant Genetic Resources Unit and Grape Genetics Research Unit. The two groups work together closely under the National Plant Germplasm System, according to the website, an effort to “safeguard the genetic diversity of agriculturally important plants.”

The research units have not yet responded to The Sun’s request for comment.

“I’m sure we can find office space,” Flynn said. “[Nyrop] doesn’t know how the fire will impact those units. Most likely, that will be an evolving conversation this week.”

An alert sent to the Geneva campus Sunday morning cautioned community members.

“Please do not enter USDA bldg 4974 or the attached greenhouse area due to the ongoing investigation and risk of injury,” the alert read. “Please use caution if traveling on campus today as USDA and B&P staff are moving materials and equipment to temporary locations.”

The fire was first reported by a Geneva police officer who noticed the smoke, which was visible for miles, according to The Finger Lakes Times. Several fire departments were at the scene, and the fire was controlled within 20 minutes.

“The USDA-ARS is a valued partner of the Cornell AgriTech Campus and of agricultural industries in New York state,” Nyrop wrote. “While this event is unfortunate, we are thankful to the Geneva Fire Department for their efforts and will make every effort to accommodate our USDA-ARS colleagues elsewhere on our campus so that they can continue their important research.”