Hundreds forced from Indiana homes as plastics fire burns


RICHMOND, Ind. (AP) – An evacuation order affecting more than 1,000 people was expected to remain in place through Wednesday around a large industrial fire in an Indiana city near the Ohio border where crews worked through the night to douse piles of burning plastics, authorities said.

Multiple fires, which began burning Tuesday afternoon, continued burning Wednesday morning within about 14 acres of various types of plastics stored both inside and outside buildings at the former factory site in Richmond, 70 miles (113 kilometers) east of Indianapolis, Richmond fire Chief Tim Brown said.

“There’s plastics inside buildings, there’s plastics outside buildings, there’s plastics in semitrailers that are throughout the grounds here at the complex, so we’re dealing with many type of plastics. It’s very much a mess,” Brown said.

Brown said a plume of smoke continued rising Wednesday from the site and about 15 firefighters had remained in place overnight working to fight the flames, which he said are contained within the old factory site. He said those fires are “not under control by any means” but he is optimistic crews will make progress Wednesday.

“We were waiting for daylight so we could start aggressively extinguishing the fire,” he said.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 people who live within a half-mile (0.8 kilometer) of the plant were told to leave after the fire began, said David Hosick, spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

Brown, the fire chief, said it’s unclear how many people have been evacuated from around the site. People outside that radius who live downwind of the fire were advised to keep windows closed and pets inside.

Brown said the evacuation order would remain in place through Wednesday and perhaps into Wednesday night, depending on how much progress crews make in putting out the flames. He said the fire’s cause remains under investigation.

Aaron Stevens, a Richmond police officer who lives six blocks from the plant, said he first heard the sirens Tuesday before he saw the pillar of smoke from his backyard that blocked the afternoon sun. The smoke came with an acrid odor and he said ash then fell on his deck and backyard.

“It was blocking out the sun completely,” he said. “The birds were going crazy.”

Despite the evacuation warning, Stevens said he plans on staying put after recently suffering an injury. His sister who lives at their childhood home, which is closer to the plant and in eyesight of the flames, came to stay with her brother to escape the smoke. Stevens said he plans on keeping an eye on the changing updates around the smoke.

“If there is an increased concern for toxic safety, I do have a contingency plan,” he said.

State and federal regulators were at the scene to assess air quality and other environmental impacts at the site, which local officials said has been used to store plastics and other materials for recycling or resale.

Jason Sewell, the on-scene coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the agency has been doing roving air sampling outside the evacuation area and into part of nearby Ohio, but no toxic compounds have been detected.

He stressed, however, that smoke is harmful to inhale because it contains particulate matter of different sizes and can contain toxics, and residents should avoid the smoke.

Sewell said air sampling was continuing Wednesday in Richmond, a city of 35,000 residents.

President Joe Biden, who has been visiting Northern Ireland and Ireland, spoke by phone to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and offered his support and any additional federal assistance needed to respond to the fire, the White House said.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the federal agency was working closely with its state and local partners in responding to and monitoring the fire. He said an EPA team would be collecting samples of debris in the area Wednesday “to determine whether asbestos-containing materials may have left the site.”

“So we’re following the situation very closely and will continue to provide the community with any assistance that they need,” he said in the nation’s capitol before speaking about tough new automobile pollution control limits.

Because of smoke still wafting from the fire, Indiana’s environmental agency issued an air quality advisory Wednesday for two eastern Indiana counties, Wayne and Randolph, warning that forecasts call for elevated levels of fine soot particles in the air.

Indiana’s state fire marshal, Steve Jones, said Tuesday “the smoke is definitely toxic” and residents need to get away from the smoke plumes, especially elderly people with respiratory problems. He said that if the wind changes, officials may alter the evacuation order.

“There’s a host of different chemicals that plastics give off when they’re on fire. And so it’s concerning,” Jones said.

Brown said the only injury has been a firefighter who suffered an ankle injury overnight Tuesday while fighting the flames, but was treated and released.

Bethesda Worship Center in Richmond housed several families, about 20 people total, Tuesday night after evacuation orders were issued, pastor Ken Harris told The Associated Press. Those families were later moved to a separate, larger facility about 5 miles (8 kilometers) away, he said.

“We gave them a safe space to breathe and collect their thoughts,” Harris said Wednesday as dark gray smoke billowed in the distance through the clear-blue sky beyond the church’s windows.

Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said Wednesday that the plastics recycling site had been under a city order to clean up and remediate the complex, but said the business owner had ignored that order. Snow called that person “a negligent business owner.”

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Callahan reported from Indianapolis. Associated Press video journalist Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report.


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