"The legacy is that the MABAS system works:" It has been five years since the Patrick Cudahy plant fire

CUDAHY (WITI) -- It's hard to believe, but it was five years ago this weekend that 500 firefighters from across the state were battling what turned out to be the largest fire in Wisconsin history -- at the Patrick Cudahy facility in Cudahy.

It was 2009. The fire started on the evening of July 5th.

It was raging by the next morning.

It burned for the next three days.

Thick smoke and the threat of explosions forced evacuations.

It was the largest structure fire in Wisconsin's history -- causing $50 million in damage -- and requiring 500 firefighters from 63 departments using 33 million gallons of water to finally put it out.

"We were fighting the fire from back in this area, near the water tower," Cudahy Fire Chief Dan Mayer said.

Mayer was and still is Cudahy's Fire Chief.

There were three football field sized buildings -- each four stories tall -- in flames.

Firefighters couldn't find the source of the blaze.

"We would find smoke here, then we wold find smoke over there -- all within this massive old building," Chief Mayer said.

The fire left an indelible memory on those who saw it.

"With one of our big industries on fire, it's like all eyes on that. I just remember all the roads shut down and water," former Patrick Cudahy employee Erik Gevers said.

"The tar on the roof, and they had layers and layers and layers of it. They just kept on burning and they couldn't put it out," Shawn Torkelson said.

Surveillance footage led investigators to brothers Kurtis and Joshua Popp -- who had fired a military flare as part of an Independence Day weekend celebration.

That flare landed on the Patrick Cudahy plant.

For nearly a year after the fire, Chief Mayer toured the country -- teaching the lessons of the Patrick Cudahy plant fire.

The main one: early activation of the mutual aid box alarm system -- or MABAS -- which calls in neighboring fire departments.

"The legacy is that the MABAS system works," Chief Mayer said.

Chief Mayer says it seemed like time stood still for awhile -- both during and after the fire -- but at the five-year mark, he says he's realizing that time always marches on.

20% of the department's staff from that day has either retired or moved on -- but they'll be gathering on Saturday for a special ceremony -- where each will be given a brick from the plant affixed with a plaque commemorating their role in battling Wisconsin's largest fire.