Residents forced from Indiana homes as plastics fire burns

RICHMOND, Ind. (AP) — An evacuation order 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.

Hundreds of people living within a half-mile of the fires were told to leave, although Brown 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.

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.

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 offered temporary shelter for people forced out of their homes, while other agencies were trying to arrange hotel rooms if necessary, Pastor Ken Harris said Tuesday.

Mayor Dave Snow said the 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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