'Exhausted' Indiana city waits for all-clear after big fire

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Firefighters pour water on an industrial fire in Richmond, Ind., Thursday, April 13, 2023. Multiple fires that began burning Tuesday afternoon were still burning within about 14 acres of various types of plastics stored inside and outside buildings at the former factory site. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

RICHMOND, Ind. – An evacuation order for people living near an extraordinary plastics fire in Indiana stretched into a fourth night Friday as officials acknowledged “our community is exhausted,” longing to return home and anxious about possible adverse health effects.

Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown said the fire was declared under control Thursday night. But crews would be on duty all weekend to extinguish any hot spots at the 14-acre (5-hectare) former factory site.

Mayor Dave Snow said experts would meet Saturday to discuss air quality and other environmental issues related to the fire, all needed before lifting an evacuation order for a half-mile (1 kilometer) radius of the blaze.

“I know our community is exhausted from this emergency,” said Christine Stinson, director of the Wayne County health department.

At least 1,500 people live in the evacuation zone, though it's not known how many residents actually obeyed the call to get out when the fire began Tuesday afternoon in Richmond, about 70 miles (115 kilometers) east of Indianapolis, near the Ohio border.

The cause was not known. But the fire quickly became an inferno, destroying six run-down buildings where tons of recycled plastic were stored for resale and creating clouds of smoke so high and dark that they cast a sprawling shadow over the city of 35,000 people.

A man who was operating the storage site, Seth Smith, has not talked publicly about the blaze, and his lawyer, Ron Moore, has declined comment. The Associated Press could not reach Smith through phone listings.

Smith was under a 2020 court order to clean up the site, which had no utilities and had been declared a serious fire hazard by inspectors.

Richmond officials said they had barred Smith from accepting more plastics while he was working to get rid of the vast holdings. He told the city in 2019 that he shipped plastics to 29 countries.

Stinson said health officials would try to explain what risks residents might face from exposure to the air as more test results come in. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said hydrogen cyanide and benzene were detected at the fire site.

Stinson said Reid Health, a major medical provider, has not reported a spike in illnesses related to the fire.

“I don't want to frighten anybody but this was a plastics fire,” Stinson said. “And there was particulate matter up in the air. ... I always said, ‘If you see smoke, if you smell the fumes you are in the plume.’''

She said N95 masks offered the best protection for the public but that ”nothing is 100 percent.”

The EPA said contractors this weekend would start collecting fire debris that landed near schools or in parks and private yards. At least one sample has tested positive for asbestos, which can harm lungs.

During a press conference, Snow tried to deflect questions about whether the city, already armed with a court order, should have been more aggressive in getting the plastics removed. He said the job would have cost “tens of millions of dollars."

“We want to get people back in their homes. They need to get back to their lives," the mayor said. “This was an individual's mess that was made. He was given a court order to clean it up. That order was ignored.”