The facility was being used to store a large amount of plastic for recycling or resale purposes. When plastic burns, it can release a host of toxic chemicals like dioxins and other carcinogens that are harmful to human health.
“The smoke is definitely toxic,” said Indiana State Fire Marshal Steve Jones in a Tuesday news briefing, though authorities are still unsure what specific chemicals could be in the smoke and debris.
Around 2,000 people within a half-mile radius of the facility were forced to evacuate as a thick, black column of smoke rose from the site. There has been no word on when the evacuation orders will be lifted. Jones said Tuesday that he expects the fire to continue burning for days.
“There is a host of different chemicals that plastics give off when they’re on fire, and it’s concerning,” Jones said.
Richmond, a city of 35,000, is about 350 kilometres south of the Canadian border near Windsor, Ont.
The smoke cloud was drifting to the east and northeast on Tuesday, according to the local evacuation order. Residents of Richmond who were in the path of the smoke cloud, but not in the evacuation zone, were advised to “shelter in place, turn off HVAC units, keep windows and doors closed, and bring pets inside” until further notice.
Authorities may amend these orders if the direction of the wind changes, Jones said.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management were on the scene monitoring the fire Tuesday and sent back air samples for testing. Wayne County Emergency Management Agency officials wrote that the preliminary results from the EPA’s lab should “begin to return by daybreak” on Wednesday.
As of now, “it is unknown what chemicals may or may not be in the debris,” Wayne County officials wrote. “Leave any debris alone and do not disturb or touch the debris.”
A social media post from a resident of the nearby town of New Paris, Ohio — which is about a 10-minute drive away from Richmond — appears to show multiple hunks of charred plastic that could have originated from the fire.
On Tuesday night, Mayor of Richmond Dave Snow said “a bus will remain in place if needed” as evacuation orders continue and “shelters are ready to accept citizens from the area.”
Because officials don’t know exactly what burned in the fire, it’s unclear what health effects the incident could have on residents who were exposed to smoke and debris.
“Primary concerns are for respiratory issues including shortness of breath, irritated skin, and burning/irritated eyes. Those with respiratory issues should be especially cautious and seek medical advice or evaluation if breathing troubles arise,” Wayne County officials advised.
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All classes in the Richmond Community School District were cancelled Wednesday as shelter-in-place orders continued.
Mayor Snow told the Associated Press that the facility where the fire broke out was “under a city order to clean up and remediate that site.”
“We knew that was a fire hazard the way they were storing materials,” Snow said.
While the cause of the fire is still unknown, firefighters that responded to the scene found a semi-trailer behind one of the facility’s buildings engulfed in flames at around 2 p.m. local time, according to Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown in a CNN report.
The trailer fire spread to other piles of plastic around the vehicle, and eventually the facility buildings, Brown said. The trailer was loaded with “an unknown type of plastics,” he said. It’s unclear how the vehicle caught on fire.
The fire spread to six buildings on the property and firefighters faced an uphill battle to control the flames because of parked trailers and large piles of plastic in the way. The fire was eventually contained on three sides hours later in the evening, Snow said.
Firefighters’ efforts prevented the blaze from spreading to nearby residential areas.
“It’s probably the largest fire I’ve seen in my career,” Brown said. “We only had access to one side of the building.”
The facility is owned in part by the City of Richmond. The name of the facility’s other owner was not released by officials.
Brown said the individual owner had been warned “several times” that the parked trailers and the way plastic was being stored in the facility were a fire hazard.
“We knew it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when this was going to happen,” he said.
No injuries have been reported so far related to the fire, apart from one firefighter who fell and sprained his ankle at the scene. Everyone who was working at the facility at the time the fire started has been accounted for and is safe.
Firefighting crews remain on the scene as the facility continues to smoulder and produce smoke.
While the Richmond Fire Department is the agency in charge of the incident, a number of organizations are assisting, including the Indiana Fire Marshal’s Office, Indiana Department of Homeland Security, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the EPA, and a number of local departments.