Chief: Indiana plastics fire reduced to a single hot spot

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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. – Fire crews working to fully extinguish an Indiana plastics fire have reduced its smoldering areas to a single hot spot, a fire chief said Saturday as officials prepared to decide if a dayslong evacuation order should be lifted.

Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown said crews will remain at the 14-acre (5-hectare) former factory site through the weekend, watching the sole hot spot remaining from the fire, which was declared under control Thursday night when the last flames were extinguished.

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He said fire officials will meet Monday morning to decide what their next steps will be at the site, where tons of recycled plastic stored for resale caught fire Tuesday. The site is in Richmond, about 70 miles (115 kilometers) east of Indianapolis, near the Ohio border.

“Other than that one hot spot, I consider this contained, controlled and 99% out," Brown told The Associated Press on Saturday afternoon.

Mayor Dave Snow said Friday that 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 site. 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 after the fire began Tuesday afternoon.

Christine Stinson, director of the Wayne County health department, said she would meet Saturday evening with environmental experts to receive and discuss the latest air sampling results before making a recommendation to Brown about whether the evacuation order can be lifted.

“Until I have those air monitoring samples back we’re not going to be making any recommendations. We're turning to the experts to help us advise the public," she said. "We’ll be making an announcement, one way or another.”

Stinson said that announcement was expected to be posted on a website the city set up to provide residents with updates on the fire.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said hydrogen cyanide and benzene were detected at the fire site. EPA contractors planned to collect fire debris over the weekend that landed near schools or in parks and private yards. At least one sample has tested positive for asbestos, which can harm lungs.

The fire's cause was not known. But it quickly became an inferno, destroying six run-down buildings holding recycled plastic and creating clouds of smoke so high and dark they cast a sprawling shadow over the city of 35,000 people.

The man operating the storage site 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 him from accepting more plastics while he was working to get rid of the vast holdings.